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Trust as a Starting Place

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Trust is the place where education begins. Without a trusting relationship between teacher and student, education cannot even start. In a time when students come to school armed, and sometimes use their weapons on teachers, and when both teachers and students see school as a dangerous place, how can trust have a role?

The kind of trust I am talking about is that which forms the most basic attitudes of the teacher and his students--it means that I, as teacher, trust the student's capacity to learn. I do not have to trust a student's capacity or desire to behave gently or in nonthreatening ways in order for learning to take place. He learned to use a weapon, didn't he? Then he can learn other things, too. That learning capacity may be well hidden under a veneer of meanness, a threatening attitude toward the teacher, or behind what appears to be a vast indifference and lack of motivation. If the teacher does not believe that the possibility of learning is immanent, though hidden, then nothing in his or her demeanor can convey that capacity to a student. Further, if the teacher does not trust the student to learn, everything the teacher does will inevitably inhibit that capacity.

This kind of trust also means that I do not take the word of another teacher in the lounge that this student is "an orangutan''; and I do not hold the grades from previous classes against the student. We will find our way together here or we won't, but whatever we do we'll do without the prejudice of past history in another class to weigh us down. We may not make any progress together; I may not be able to motivate a student to achievement, but we will work at it, and if we are defeated it will be our defeat, despite our own best efforts, not one presumed on my part, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The student has to trust, too. He may well have been disappointed, frustrated, bored, put off for a thousand reasons throughout his school career. But he has to trust the teacher to do some thoughtful work at the same time the student does. That is, the teacher must be trying to discover the meaning, not only of the schoolwork they share, but of their lives together in this place. If every lesson has already been "canned'' by the teacher so he can perform without thought, it is clear to even the slowest student that the teacher is no longer learning anything from this. If the student cannot trust the teacher to be involved in learning, why should he believe that learning is important to anyone? And if the work is not important to either the teacher's life or his own, why bother? There are more interesting things outside the window.

The teacher also has to trust that if the material in the class is compelling to him, it can be compelling to the student. It may not always work out that way, but if the material is not compelling to the teacher, it rarely happens that students will find it compelling. Both the teacher and the student have to trust the text, whether that "text'' is a math problem, or a short story: That is, we must trust that there is something in this text that will inform our lives, help us cope with a world that is charged with mystery; that will help us understand why things are the way they are, how they can be made better, how we can learn to live with the worst while striving for the best. What "the point of it all'' is.

Without these elements of trust, the educational process cannot begin, let alone proceed.

Gary H. Holthaus is the director of the Center for the American West at University of Colorado at Boulder. He is also on the English faculty there.

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