Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Where Trust Resides

“You have lost my trust.” These five words strung together were, by far, the most agonizing to hear growing up as a child.  I honestly would have rather gotten a spanking like other kids I knew, or been grounded for a year, than be told by my parents that they (for the time being) did not trust me. It spoke to my character: who I was and what I stood for. The loss of trust meant there was a break between us, and damage had been done. I knew they still loved me (they told me that both before and after they dropped the trust bomb), but I also knew I had to heal what was broken and earn their trust back…which wouldn’t happen overnight.
My father told me each time that breaking someone’s trust takes only a second, earning someone’s trust takes a bit longer, and re-gaining someone’s trust can take a lifetime. For the sake of my sensitive soul, he would also follow that up with: “But don’t worry Nonnie, it won’t take you your whole life, not even close,” and wink.
My feelings about trust have not changed through the years.These early life lessons, which I seemed to need to relearn every few years..a bit more frequently in my late teens...have stuck with me. I still hold trust in a fiercely protected chamber of my heart. Yes, it is partly made up of the trust I have for others, but the majority of the trust I stand guard over and ensure no harm comes to, is the trust others have in me, most especially the trust of my students.

Where Trust Resides Learning Thrives
When trust is cultivated in a classroom, there is no stopping the learning.
Because when learners trust their teacher, coach, sherpa, etc. they open up. They open up about what they love, what they wonder about, what confuses them, what they struggle with both inside and outside the classroom, and what they need and don’t need from you. This invaluable information helps you to create an environment in which learning can grow exponentially and learners can take off like rockets. Want to personalize instruction? Earn the trust of your students, so you can really get to know them.
When learners trust, they break down barriers. They let you in on the fact that they think teachers only see them as the “bad kid”, who always causes trouble, and that since they already have the reputation, they might as well live up to it. They tell you the reason they say not nice things to classmates is because they have been to five different schools in 6 years, and getting close to people guarantees heartbreak when you have to leave. Want to know what the best gift a student can give you as a teacher? Their trust in return.  
When learners trust, they take risks. They know they are in a safe space where failure is viewed as one of the most important parts of the learning process, and that without it, they haven’t learned as much as they could have. They set goals for themselves that push them to reach a bit further and aim a bit higher. They learn to be ok with feeling tinge uncomfortable when encountering something new. They add the word “yet” to the end of sentences and believe they can achieve. Want to be a teacher who takes risks? Show your learners they can trust you to go on the journey with them.

Cultivating Trust
Trust, like respect, is not demanded, or guaranteed, it’s earned. It doesn’t happen after one day, one week, or even one month, and it will be tested, repeatedly.  It requires patience and the willingness to open yourself up to rejection and criticism. The road to truly trusting can be long, winding, bumpy and rough, but it is a journey I set out on every year with my learners, and one that year after year makes all the difference.  
When I sat down to construct this post, a part of me wanted to be able to write, “Five Steps to Building Trust in the Classroom,” and everyone would just be able to do it flawlessly, but then that would cheapen what it truly means to nurture a relationship with a student. If it becomes a recipe, it isn’t authentic, and no one can spot a fake like a child. So while I don’t have steps, I do have thoughts about how I have cultivated trust in my classroom. 

Know it can’t be bought. I am not the teacher who gives out candy and has dance parties every Friday. Rewards don’t make you trustworthy. Rewards just make you popular in the moment. Want to know what has EARNED my students’ trust? Keep reading.

Be reflective, not reactive. We all make less than ideal choices at times. It’s easy to just react in the moment when a learner does something that disrupts a lesson or disrespects someone in the room. I’ve done it. I’ve lost my patience and just reacted, and I’ve watched as the trust I have built with that student takes a small hit. Do that enough, and the foundation of your relationship will have so many cracks that nothing stable will be able to be built on top of it. Taking the time to talk to learners about their actions, decisions, thoughts and asking them why they have made the choices they have and what you can do to help, is one of the most impactful things we can do as educators. We are creating learning opportunities in which people are still taking responsibility for their actions, but also reflecting on the behavior and its impact on everyone involved.  These two-way conversations demonstrate that you are invested in who they are and actually want to help them succeed. It may require deep breathing, but taking a few moments to think before we act can make a tremendous difference.  

Set clear, consistent, and realistic expectations.  It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s important to have expectations for your students. Those expectations help your learners to continue to grow as individuals and should change from September to June; you just have to make sure you repeatedly and clearly tell them what those expectations are. If something changes, and those expectations shift, you can’t assume they know, you must tell them, and bonus points are awarded if you discuss WHY. For triple triple points, ask for their input as well. Have them help to define what they expect of themselves and each other. By encouraging them to take ownership, you are demonstrating that you trust them...it’s a two-way street.   

Be human/transparent. One of the things I do at every lunch duty (and throughout the day when a lesson/moment calls for it) is tell a story about my or my dad’s childhood. For roughly 7 minutes, the room is completely silent, while 95 - 100 students learn about my mistakes and misadventures. During this intimate time, they also get to see me as someone who has been where they have been. They feel the pain I felt and learn the lesson I learned. We have grown closer by the end of the story, and they feel more comfortable coming up to me in the hall or on the playground to share with me their own stories and experiences. They open up because I opened up and told them it was safe to share.

Seek out feedback from learners, really listen, and then implement the required change. It is terrifying asking your learners what they think of your teaching. You think your observations with the principal can be rough, try a group of nine and ten-year-olds. They are brutally honest, even when they are trying to be sweet about it. I have been on the receiving end of some rude wakeup calls, but until that moment I had been just that, asleep and unaware, and needed to wake up and make the necessary changes. Being receptive to feedback not only helps you better meet the needs of your learners and create a more successful learning environment, it also shows your number one priority is their learning not your pride.

Show up. Be present. Be engaged. Listen to them. Care, not a little, a lot. Go to bat for them and fight for what they need.  

Build relationships with “parents.” Trust doesn’t live in a vacuum. Nothing can erode and destroy trust more swiftly than the negative chirpings, whisperings, or unsaid nonverbals of a third party, and in this case, the third party is the “parents” of your learners. Now I am NOT saying “parents” are the enemy of trust in the classroom. In fact, I am saying the exact opposite. “Parents” are the key, the linchpin, to building trust between you and your learners. It doesn’t matter that technically we spend more waking hours in a day with their child than they do because we will never be their mom, dad, grandparent, etc. That title holds more weight than anything else, and we, as educators, must show that title respect for the sake of our learners. We have to take the time to demonstrate to “parents” we are to be trusted, that we have their child’s best interests at heart, and that we are on the same team, fighting for the same goal (assuming that goal is for their child to be “successful” in life). Will there be times “parents” are just not open to trusting us? Absolutely. Will some “parents” make earning their trust difficult? You bet. But will we ever GIVE them a reason to lose trust in us? NOT ON MY LIFE.Through frequent communication, honesty, patience, and your proven love/appreciation/knowledge of their child, I believe trust can be built between teachers and “parents”, and that it is our mission to keep fighting for that trust, no matter what.    
Breaking someone’s trust takes only a second,
earning someone’s trust takes a bit longer,
and re-gaining someone’s trust can take a lifetime.

By the time a child has started his/her first day of school, the ability to trust may be completely shattered for a myriad of reasons. We won’t know the why or the how, we will just know that we cannot give up.


  1. Natalie, thank you so much. Before learning happens, trust is the key. No trust, no learning. The bond between teachers and students is critically important. Intrinsic motivation is based on trust, not extrinsic incentives. Bravo.

    1. Thank you for your feedback and words of wisdom, Rita. Always thrilling to know your message has been heard. :)

    2. Thank you for your feedback and words of wisdom, Rita. Always thrilling to know your message has been heard. :)