Last month I wrote about my own experiences and lessons learned around trust, as well as the application of the trust equation in building strong and meaningful relationships. This month, I am sharing an approach for applying the trust framework in education, specifically for teachers who are working hard to build meaningful relationships with their students.
Teachers are often told that they need to prioritize “building relationships” with their students in order to develop stronger classroom culture, motivate students, and ultimately to drive academic achievement. Of course student-teacher relationships matter – studies show that early teacher-student relationships affect early academic and social outcomes as well as future academic outcomes (Pianta 1992; Hamre & Pianta 2001). There are tons of articles and resources available that provide strategies for getting to know students, and while many of these are useful for teachers, isolated strategies oftentimes promote a piecemeal approach to relationship building that is neither sustainable nor authentic. Furthermore, new teachers face an additional challenge of being new to their school environment and the surrounding community – two factors that can make trust even harder to build with students, families and colleagues. Given the complexity of these challenges, the trust framework can be a useful tool for thinking both comprehensively and concretely about how to build meaningful relationships with students.
Thinking back to my first year of teaching, my students didn’t have a lot of reasons to trust me – at least not at first. While I had good intentions and sincerely wanted to build trusting relationships with my kids, the pressures of being a first year teacher and the overwhelming amount of work in a new environment made it challenging at times. I was brand new to Philadelphia, brand new to teaching, and did not share much in common with my students or their families, at least on the surface.
I was inconsistent with many things, including my classroom routines, responding to misbehavior (sometimes staying calm, other times getting angry), and returning graded work (reliability). I also had a bad habit of making promises and not keeping them (credibility). I’d threaten consequences for misbehavior and not follow through or promise a reward for positive behavior and then run out of time or forget. I also made stuff up once in a while. You know the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it?” I leaned heavily on that for my first few months of teaching because many times I truly did not know how to answer my students’ questions. But kids pick up on “BS” quickly, and as a result, my students didn’t trust that I was always speaking the truth and that I was good at what I was doing (teaching). They also didn’t know what to expect from me when they came into my classroom.
Yet, early on I was still able to make some good progress with building trust in other areas. I took time to get to know my students and to let them know more about me (intimacy). I learned about their interests, their families, and their learning styles. I asked my students to bring photos of people who inspire them and I hung them on the front wall of the classroom – what became my “Faces of Inspiration” wall. I showed them pictures of my family, talked about what it was like growing up in Ohio, and told them about what I liked to do in my free time. I also let my students know why I was there – that I cared about them and believed in them (self-orientation). I spent time with students after school, helping them with homework and coaching basketball. I listened to my students when they spoke to me and celebrated their successes. My students knew that I cared about them and their interests and goals, and they appreciated my willingness to let them get to know me.
While I didn’t think about it like this at the time, I was doing a great job at building trust in some areas, but falling flat in others. Take a look at the trust framework and the trust equation. The model lays out 4 key components of trust – reliability, credibility, intimacy and self-orientation – that are crucial in building trusting relationships with others:
- Reliability: consistency in follow-through, action and demeanor
- Credibility: one’s level of skill and experience; the extent to which people trust that what you say is true (i.e. you don’t hold things back and always speak the truth)
- Intimacy: the extent to which one is willing to share about him/herself, and the extent to which others trust you enough to do the same
- Self-Orientation: Are you focused on yourself or on others? Do others feel like you have an agenda, or do you truly care about others and their interests and goals?
And the equation:
Reliability + Credibility + Intimacy = Trustworthiness
As a first year teacher, my strengths were clearly with intimacy and self-orientation and I struggled at first with reliability and credibility. In order to be more trustworthy in the eyes of my students, I needed to build more consistency into my classroom structures and with my own behavior. I also needed to make sure that I was well prepared, followed through and remained truthful with my students at all times. It’s not rocket science by any means, but breaking it down into bite-sized chunks – and knowing where my strengths lay – would have been immensely helpful in building trusting relationships and a strong classroom culture early on in my teaching career.
Teachers who are facing challenges in their classroom can benefit greatly from examining their relationships through the lens of trust. In a profession in which nebulous ideas and platitudes don’t translate to solutions – particularly when it comes to relationships – actionable steps and a clear framework can be a real life-saver. Trust me, you and your students will thank you for it.