5 Practices for Developing Trust and Respect With High School Students
Since it precedes everything else.
Teachers have their work cut out for them. In today’s education world, this is especially true as the workload only gets heavier, more detailed, and increasingly tracked. Teacher retention is harder than ever to maintain, and it’s fair to say that even the most passionate educators are nearing their wit’s end. In the center of this national struggle are students, who many teachers would agree are the least stressful part of the job, and even more, what keeps them teaching.
Students at the high school level have been in the K-12 system for roughly ten years. They’ve seen a lot, and in the past decade, they’ve witnessed a range of teacher types: the burnout, the perfectionist, the desk sitter, the homework enthusiast, the “summers off” teacher, the stress bomb, the wise soul, the tyrant, the teacher who left, and so on. At the beginning of each year, it’s only natural for them to initially try to group teachers into a predictable category, which is fine. For some of those categories, this is especially true after the 2020–2021 academic year as students saw a higher number than usual of teachers demonstrating inconsistencies, incohesive teaching, or decisions to leave the career. Now, more than ever, the establishment of trust and respect takes time.
An age-old question during the hiring process for teachers is whether you’d rather be liked or respected as a teacher. In the eyes of teachers with a job to do, trust and respect should be the social, foundational goal in a classroom before anything else. Once established, students are likely to think well of a teacher they trust and respect, but that part doesn’t really matter. The long-asked question is no longer important; rather, teachers should ask themselves how they’re going to establish respect, trust, and a healthy social and emotional learning environment. Students are coming into each school year with an understandable jadedness, and because of this, teachers owe them consistency, stability, and patience. Here’s how to establish the three, which with time, is likely to result in all-around trust and respect.
Practice #1: Mean business, but have humor, and maintain an unwavering, clear distinction between the two.
In a past era of teaching, Fred Jones coined the term “meaning business” in his Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation as a practice for classroom management. This tactic has maintained relevance, especially in a time when most teachers are, simply, tired. When students see you have a job to do and are eager to help them accomplish something, they are likely to express curiosity and consider your ideas. Most of this should be communicated in the first week of school, and for the record, the first ten minutes of each class period moving forward. In the classroom, it’s enacted with strong presence, a sense of urgency, and clear economy of language. In short, there’s a task to accomplish and we’re all about to accomplish it.
That being said, this projection can only sustain itself throughout the year with humility, kindness, and yes, humor. High school students need to laugh. Although usually (and wisely) held off on until October or November on the teacher’s end, laughter and humor in the classroom is critical, as long as there’s a clear distinction between work and play.
Keeping a clear distinction between work and play preserves the importance of content in the classroom. It also keeps clear that you are, first and most, their educator. Some ways for maintaining this clear distinction is a simple change of tone, body language and expression. When transitioning into academic learning, students should see and feel a shift in energy, which is as simple as a drop of tone, a squared-up stance, and formal language makes the shift into academic mode clear. Students will become used to this as a sense of security for what’s expected of them and when. Teachers must take the lead and not question themselves.
Practice #2: Remain stoic in every instance.
This is an art, and difficult to master. However, zen energy goes far with high school students. There are endless instances a day where teachers can panic, raise their voice, or even debate with students (ouch). Consequently, these actions lead teachers to quickly lose trust and respect. Debating with students tells them teachers are okay with push back. Raising one’s voice tells students that teachers are struggling for control. Panicking tells students teachers have lost control. Even a facial expression of stress can cause students to feel uneasy, which sucks.
Teacher stoicism can be worked towards by a change of mindset. Calmness comes from a place of self-trust, and reduced perfectionist thinking. Even with challenging groups, a teacher must know they can lead, and that in this, classroom actions won’t always be perfect throughout the way. Calmness allows for more acknowledgment of the good, which with time, will grow. A lack of reactionary responses from a teacher can slow or even stop unruliness. Being boring in times when students expect a big reaction communicates that teacher energy is, strictly, for teaching students (which in itself, is trustworthy and respectable).
Practice #3: Reserve. A lot.
It’s nice for students to know who their teacher is, but for some, it may be more beneficial to stay reserved. Telling students too much, especially early in the school year, can communicate that teachers are at their mercy. Essentially, teachers shouldn’t treat students like a group to report to. Teachers should choose carefully when and how much to talk about themselves, and make learning about students. It’s normal for students to occasionally ask questions, but teachers don’t have to answer everything.
Practice #4: Listen to them when the time is right.
Students must feel heard, and student voice should be considered more than it is when it comes to decision making in education. There’s nothing more valuable in the realm of education reform than to hear the thoughts of students regarding their own education experience. It’s critical.
This can, unfortunately, feel like a catch-22 in the classroom. Students should trust that their teachers know best (which hopefully, their teachers actually do). But it’s becoming more common for teachers to incorporate student decisions on how class is ran. In one sense, this is genius. Student-led classrooms can be well executed, and it can feel empowering for students to have a say in their classroom experience. However, teachers must be careful with this. Giving students power they may not be socially developed enough to handle properly can create a dysfunctional dynamic in the classroom, and can even diminish trust and respect towards teachers.
Students need strong leadership. They, whether or not they acknowledge this or even know it, want direction from someone. This always comes first. That being said, there is a way to create a space for students to be heard, openly, and for respect to be maintained. They need to be heard just as much as they need direction, and when respect is developed first, this creates meaningful moments in the classroom. Teachers may not be able to fix everything for students, but listening is huge. Educators must find this balance.
Practice #5: Trust them morally, socially and academically.
One of the greatest things a teacher can do for a student is to see them for the best they can be every day. It’s easy to develop preconceived notions about students (just like students do for teachers), but operating with a completely objective and consistently optimistic lens of students can and will make students not want to disappoint teachers, or at least when they do, it won’t feel good. Teachers are not only here to teach students how to do well, but to believe that students can do well. Some students have a track record, and have adopted the identity that principals, past teachers, friends, or even family have given them. When a teacher is always assuming the best, students are likely to not only care more about their actions, but trust and respect the person making them care.
All in all, at a chaotic time for teachers and students, teachers must maintain a healthy dynamic and energy in the classroom. A presence that is calm but persistent, powerful but willing to listen, and reserved but insistent about students being their best selves can lead to trust and respect in all directions, allowing classrooms to function well. It’s a tricky balance and takes time to develop, but with consistency, this foundation will take form.