Before You Can Teach, You Have to Build Trust

Teaching isn’t unique as a job that hinges on successful relationships with the people you work with. What does set teaching apart from other relationship-based work — sales, management, etc — is in part the sheer number of relationships involved. On top of this, the relationships teachers have to build with students (as well as families, colleagues, supervisors) have to be stronger and withstand very different kinds of tests than other professions that might place an emphasis on relationships.

What’s more intriguing is that even though teachers have to manage 20 to 150 successful relationships with students with a wide range of needs and personalities, this part of the work rarely enters the conversation when many discuss successful teaching. Or if it does, it usually follows a list of other attributes like high expectations, classroom management, content knowledge and data-driven planning.

This is odd, considering relationships are really the foundation of learning. New research on neuroscience tells us that a student’s affective networks (areas of the brain responsible for feeling safe, interested, engaged) are as important as any other in guaranteeing academic success. None of the other components of great teaching can gain any traction without a healthy relationship built on trust between a teacher and a student.

I’ve been running into this problem firsthand lately. A new student joined my class in mid-October. I worked hard to integrate him into the class community. I had students give him a tour of the classroom and the school. I assigned him a lunch buddy for the first couple of days. He made friends and quickly seemed comfortable with the class rules, routines and procedures.

And yet, the last few weeks this student and I have constantly been at odds. At times he has been outright defiant. And now I’m realizing how important it is to make time for this student and I to get to know each other more closely as I did with his classmates during the first six weeks of school.

On the surface, my student is just angry because another student is harassing him verbally and physically. He feels there’s been no consequences and sees no end in sight. He’s chosen to “solve” the problem with fighting, and now feels unfairly punished for it.

At the root of this problem however is a lack of trust in me. Perhaps the most powerful way to regain this trust is certainly to show consistent and firm consequences toward his harasser (and all students). But this will only accomplish part of the work.

Asking him about his family, his new baby sister, his interests (the Knicks, WWE and superheroes) is almost as important as enforcing consequences with this other student. Letting him get to know me as a person, and see a glimpse behind my teacher mask are a part of the process as well.

This isn’t a mind-blowing revelation by any means. Many wiser, more experienced teachers talk and write about the power of relationships. Still, there’s a difference between knowing something to be true, and remembering it in times when the majority of your professional conversations pivot around data, standards and curriculum.

Sometimes it takes a dilemma to bring a simple truth to light. Now it’s time to work to keep it at the forefront. One of my favorite parts of teaching is the opportunity for fresh chances each day. Even if change takes time in a classroom, there are no lost causes.

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