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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Students Don’t Always Trust Us, and That’s a School Climate Issue

By Peter DeWitt — April 23, 2017 6 min read
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It’s not just Houston where we have a problem...

It’s clear from watching the news or reading our Facebook and Twitter feeds that we are more polarized than ever. We seem to have no patience for those who think differently than we do, and we are unfriending people left and right because they may be on the left when we are on the right...or vice versa.

That’s not new information. We have heard this before.

Why should this matter for school leaders and teachers? All of it...all of it...has a negative impact on our school climate. We have students and families who are disengaged and we have to engage them or this polarization will get worse, because it begins with trust, and many students don’t trust us. I’ll explain that a bit more later.

Many school climates are supportive and inclusive. Leaders and teachers work in unison with students and families, and the images around the hallways and the books in the library all represent the very students who enter the school.

Unfortunately, this is not always the norm, and there are many reasons for it. Some of those reasons are:

Federal and state initiatives - Between high-stakes testing and all of the compliance type initiatives that have been around for what seems to be decades...teachers and leaders do not always know where to turn. They spend their days hoping they are doing the right thing and giving the right answers. That has harmful effects on our school climates.

Leadership - Not all leaders are created equally. Some leaders spent many years as an assistant principal so they feel it is a rite of passage to take over a building when they may not be the right fit. Other times there are leaders hired who seem to lack real leadership skills. It’s their way or the highway. That leadership mentality leads to more compliance on the part of stakeholders.

Poverty - this can have devastating effects on a school climate, but maybe not for the exact reasons you may think (Poverty Matters But Not How You Think). Sometimes we lower our expectations for students because they live in poverty. We enable them instead of empower them. Other times we ask students to live in two different worlds (Hattie). One is their educational world where they have to speak our educational language, and the other is their home world where they don’t use our educational lingo, and their parents don’t understand it even if students do use it at home.

This focus on compliance and lack of student voice mixed with no common language with our families are only going to lead to more polarization where it seems that one group doesn’t understand the other...and it seems as though there is little care about that issue.

Student Voice?
Day after day, year after year, some students and families are surveyed by their schools to ask them what needs to change to help them feel more engaged, and then the students and families never see any changes at all. The surveys are put away and nothing changes. No dialogue takes place. Other times, schools don’t even ask students and families for their input. It’s one-sided monologue and no presence of dialogue at all.

If we don’t think student voice isn’t a crisis, check out this new bill being introduced in Texas. HB1585 was introduced a few months ago to allow students to have more of a voice in their curriculum. Shouldn’t students typically have a voice in what they learn? Sadly, there now needs to be a law in order for students to feel like they have a voice in what they learn. Do we really need a law for that? Doesn’t that speak to the polarization happening in our world if we need a law to allow the voice of our students?

And yes, this law is about turning around some of those state and federal initiatives that seem to ignore students, but it is also about getting some school leaders and teachers to realize how important student voice is to the learning process. But it’s even more important than that.

Zakeer Tameez from the Houston Chronicle reports,

In one 2015 poll, a majority of millennials said they almost never trust an authority figure to do the right thing. Which authority figures? The Harvard University study found consistent distrust across the board: from the U.S. president, Congress and Supreme Court to federal, state and local governments. Voter turnout numbers are even more striking. Fewer than 50 percent of millennials ages 18-24 have voted in any presidential election since 1972, including last year's."

However, it’s not just in the political realm. In a 2014 Gallup Poll, Millennials were asked about their trust in institutions. 14% of those surveyed said that they trusted the school system a great deal, and 16% answered that they trusted in schools quite a lot (Click to read the Gallup Poll here). A great percentage of students do not trust the public school system, and we can do something about that.

If they have to come to the institution every day, shouldn’t they trust the institution they are coming to?

Gaining Trust
Principals are seen as authority figures. Teachers are seen as authority figures. It begins with us when it comes to whether students feel as though they have a voice, and it begins with us to show students that authority figures care about their future as much as students do. We can help students understand that they have a future.

Some of the ways to engage students and gain their trust are below. Most of the examples are using the research of John Hattie (I work with Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer) and come with an effect size (he calculated effect sizes using the average from the meta-analysis he collected). In Hattie’s research a .40 effect size represents a year’s growth for a year’s input.

Feedback (.75) - Provide feedback around learning for both teachers and students.

Teacher - Student relationships (.72) - Creating relationships with students by knowing their names and understanding their interests is important.

Goal setting (.50) - Set learning goals with students instead of always doing it for them.

Choice - Provide students a choice in how they are assessed (read this great Educational Leadership article by Larry Ferlazzo). In Hattie’s research I look to “student disposition to learn” which has an effect size of .48. Student disposition to learn refers to the control students feel over their own learning.

Classroom discussion (.82) - End polarization by increasing classroom discussion. Establish learning intentions and success criteria. Model what a high-quality classroom discussion looks like and then explore the topics that you know students are seeing on television or on social media.

Common language - Hattie refers to this as the language of learning. I feel that the language of learning involves more than just the words we use in science, math (or maths for my friends in Australia, NZ and the UK) and ELA. We need common language around our minoritized (LGBT or LGBTQ, gender, race, etc.) populations as well.

In the End
As a society we seem to be more polarized than ever, and as an institution students do not seem to trust us very much. It’s time to get the trust back and it begins with our school climate. We are all so worried about compliance and getting things right that we seem to have forgotten our moral purpose in being here and it’s to provide students with a voice and empower them rather than enable them.

Let’s get the trust back and include students in the process. We shouldn’t need a law for that.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward), and the forthcoming School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press/Ontario Principals Council. August 2017). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.