As a relatively new mom, I’m relearning what it means to trust myself. In many areas of my life, I’ve developed a gut sense that helps me move efficiently through my day, but when it comes to my seven-month-old, I misstep. I’m trying to go easy on myself, but I also really want to do right by him, and it’s a hard balance to strike. As a working parent, I feel overwhelming relief (and privilege) that my boss trusts me to do my work without needing to micromanage sick appointments for my son. He trusts me, and I benefit greatly from that. I also do much better work because I’m not focusing on how to achieve equilibrium between my work and personal life.
I would say that trust is essential. It’s there in healthy relationships (familial, platonic, and romantic), healthy work environments, and, I would argue, healthy societies. It should also be a cornerstone for healthy schools. A deep, abiding trust between students and their teachers would help to lessen the anxiety that is all too common in our kids; lessening anxiety can lighten stress and promote a culture where learning, growing, and reflecting can take center stage. And this is the work that our schools should be striving to do: Building trust, lessening anxiety and stress, and promoting authentic learning for students.
So how do we increase the trust in schools?
We should think about this in two ways.
First, schools should increase the trust it shows its teachers and staff. Teachers are professionals. Society (and in a more tangible way, states) ask teachers to go through years of schooling, take expensive tests, and earn licensure. After jumping these hurdles (sometimes multiple times over if a teacher moves) states still seem unwilling to trust that a teacher can use professional judgment to determine what’s in the best interest of the students in their class. Standardized testing has taken a lot away from teachers, and even more away from students, most notably, the underlying and essential human interaction between student and teacher (really, between two people). In talking about the advances of Artificial Intelligence, Ted Dintersmith shared that he believes many jobs will become obsolete because a program can handle the specialized knowledge it takes to perform them; professions such as doctors and lawyers fall into this category (see my blog post “Changes, Quick & Slow” for more about Ted’s visit to Pittsburgh). If we can move away from scripted curricula and rote memorization being misconstrued for learning, teachers won’t be replaceable. Teaching requires an incredible depth of knowledge, but even more than depth of knowledge, teaching requires creativity to make it come to life. We need to trust teachers, with their years of schooling and years of experience, to do this important, and wholly human, work.
Second, the adults in schools need to actively work to establish and maintain trusting relationships with their students. (Note: There are many teachers who do this work every day, and they serve as models all across the country for how to get kids to do their best work.) I think this requires three things: treating kids as people, listening to them deeply, and knowing your students well. Often, schools become authoritarian spaces where adults impose rules and restrictions on students. When adults remember and act keeping in mind that kids are other people, just like adults, this goes a long way toward creating a culture where trust can flourish. Getting to know your students well is imperative in building trust; taking an active interest in their lives and trying to understand their experience cultivates a relationship where students feel comfortable sharing their reality. Without knowing them well, you’re teaching 10th grade English. Knowing them well, you’re teaching each child.
And what do you do when that trust gets broken? Know that it will happen, don’t take it personally, talk about it, honestly and openly, and get back to work at building it up. As I think about it, I know that this all applies to my parenting as well. Over the years I will absolutely make countless mistakes, but I don’t need to strive for perfection; rather I need to muster the everyday resolve to simply get back to work and keep going.
Image by Sara Bailey