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How to Create Communities of Trust With Your Students

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We’ve all seen those teachers. At some point we likely were one of them. We hear their bellows reverberating down the halls. We witness their students barely responding as they repeat the students’ names with increasing shrillness. We purse our lips and wring our hands, thinking, “Should I intervene?” Our brow furrowed, we command a call for order—then stalk away grumbling. We would never stand for that in our own class!

The teacher whose hair has greyed noticeably since the fall. The teacher who may not make it through the semester. The teacher who has poor relationships with his or her students.

Seven years ago, that was me—a thought that makes me cringe. “What terrible power struggle awaits me today?” I would muse. “What unpredictable act of defiance might I encounter by noon?”

In hindsight, the power struggles and student acts of defiance representative of my first year of teaching were both predictable and avoidable.

Why do some teachers struggle so much? How can they evolve past the teacher role of “The Stranger” or “The Liar” to become “The Real Deal”? And why is this transformation of particular importance for those who teach across cultures?

To answer these questions, let’s look at three distinct teacher profiles categorized by the nature of their relationships with their students. Of course, such profiles are meant as well-intended generalizations—teachers can have different relationships with individual students.

1. The Stranger

Summary: The Stranger is exactly that—an unknown in the eyes of her students. In return, her students are blurry watercolor portraits lacking individual detail. The Stranger may generally characterize her relationships with students as “good,” but when hard-pressed, can’t name many of their specific interests or life stories.

Struggle: In the absence of deep personal knowledge of her students, she substitutes sweeping generalizations often derived from stereotypes. In turn, her students impose their own stereotypes onto the giant question mark that is their teacher. Conflicts between teacher and students may be minor, but limited student engagement, poor attendance, and low achievement are major.

Solution: To create a community of trust, the teacher must take the first step and let students see her. In my case, this was simply a lucky accident. One day, as I reached for something up high, my shirt came untucked, revealing a large faded scar on my abdomen. When my students gasped and demanded my scar’s story, my first instinct was to shush them and continue the lesson. Instead, I literally let them see my scar (not in a creepy way!) and told them about my childhood injury. They were transfixed, mouths agape, silent. I had finally initiated the precedent for trust by sharing something personal.

2. The Liar

Summary: I don’t mean an evil, lying teacher. Rather, this is a teacher whose students feel that he or she invalidates their reality—and is thus lying about it. This is the most challenging type of relationship for all parties involved—not for lack of good intentions on either side but because no amount of lesson planning, calls home, or sheer authoritarian willpower can overcome the fundamental paradigm disparity between parties.

Struggle: In the Liar’s classroom, teacher and students are at an impasse. Student behaviors often look defiant, rude, confrontational, and disrespectful—what Jeffery Duncan-Andrade calls “willed unlearning.” In my experience, willed unlearning is especially evident in schools where teachers and students do not share cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds and therefore find it challenging to validate each other’s paradigms. This dynamic is especially problematic because it exacerbates the asymmetry of power between teacher and student, ultimately robbing students of their sense of agency and turning them against formal education.

Solution: I’m reminded of a student who came to me with a behavioral rap-sheet a mile long. “I hate school!” she proudly proclaimed on day one. “We’ll talk about this after class,” I responded. She began our first of many lunches in her typical bah-humbug fashion: “Why am I here? I didn’t do anything!” I said her comment about hating school was interesting to me. “What did you do this weekend?” I asked. She squinted at me, sizing me up, perplexed. “Why do you want to know?” “Well, this weekend I went to see a movie with my friend and I went to the park with my dog and I went to the public pool,” I answered.

She considered me hesitantly for a few seconds before launching in: “Well, I can tell you what I didn’t do! I didn’t ride my bike because my dad got drunk and smashed it into itty-bitty pieces all over the front yard. So that’s what I didn’t do, I can tell you that!” It came out like a tidal wave of anger, a flood of indignation. “Whoa!” I said. “That’s really messed up. You’re super mad because that’s really messed up about your bike.” She took a deep breath and stared at her lunch tray. Without raising her eyes, she just sighed, “Yeah. It was.”

Teachers had tried in vain to tame her, but all she wanted was someone to validate her experiences. It wasn’t about being “easy” on her; it was about cultivating trust through vulnerability and empathy. That year, she had zero behavioral referrals, made over two years’ worth of academic growth, and perhaps most importantly, made her first friend.

3. The Real Deal

Summary: This teacher really knows his students, and they know him; there’s genuine love all around.

Characteristics: This teacher explicitly validates the realities that inform his students’ lives, pushes them to think critically about those realities, and harnesses the emotion they evoke to fuel his students’ thirst for knowledge and wisdom. Behavioral concerns in this classroom are all but nonexistent because students are endowed with great responsibility, great expectations, and great trust.

Some teachers instinctively move past the first two profiles with ease, while others find it a long, hard trek. But becoming The Real Deal is within every teacher’s reach, no matter the contrast between you and your students’ lives and experiences.

Maybe you’re just embarking on building a community of trust. Maybe you feel your path is worn, weathered, and lacking meaningful connections. In either instance, you’ll have successes and setbacks. But know that becoming The Real Deal can begin with a simple story about your ugliest scar or their family’s ugliest moment. The trust will build and the change will begin, if you do.

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