Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trust – Connecting in the Classroom

by Kamilah Cummings
Trust is a word that weaves its way into countless conversations. However, it is not often uttered when faculty discuss strategies for supporting students in the classroom. At least, I had not thought about it until a colleague recently warned me that a group of students would never trust me. She followed with an assurance that despite their impenetrable distrust these students would, indeed, respect me and do the required work for the course, but she bookended her admonition with a final reminder that they would never trust me. Because I view trust as an essential element of any healthy relationship, this led me to reflect on the role of trust in teacher-student relationships.

Given the current state of higher education where high tuition and low student enrollment walk hand-in-hand at some institutions, fostering trust in students is of increasing importance. Research shows that lack of trust can negatively impact retention and recruitment based on its correlation to quality perceptions and tuition sensitivity (Ghosh, Whipple and Bryan 333). Drawing from earlier research on trust in higher education, Ghosh, Whipple and Bryan found that sincerity, expertise, and congeniality were the most popular antecedents for influencing student trust in higher education institutions (332-335). It is not an enormous leap to assume that these are also antecedents of trust in the classroom as well.

The relationship between teacher and student is a powerful one that can resonate for a moment or a lifetime. Brookfield argues that not trusting teachers results in students who are “unwilling to submit themselves to the perilous uncertainties of new learning” (163). Further, Chopra offers that an ideal relationship is one where trust, peace, and the ability to heal after a disconnect are present (Chopra and Winfrey). These realities prompted me to think more specifically about the shape trust takes with regard to student writing in my classroom where I expect students to lay bare their emotions and beliefs alongside their writing abilities for the scrutiny of not only me as their teacher but their classmates as well.

For many, academic writing is a compulsory seat at a table of discomfort and vulnerability. Nontraditional learners bring disparate prior academic experiences to the classroom. Unfortunately, some of those experiences have resulted in the perception of the teacher-student relationship as adversarial. Yet, “the element of trust” underlies “all significant learning” (Brookfield 163). Therefore, faculty are tasked with dismantling barriers of distrust that have cemented over time - often decades.

I know that one place for a potential disconnect or break in trust in my courses is when I provide feedback on student writing. Here, I see the need for sincerity and expertise to work together to support student success. McFarlane argues that providing feedback that is either harsh or lenient can erode trust between teachers and students (230). I can list numerous times where students and even friends have recounted with vivid detail previous experiences with teacher feedback that was awash in ridicule, condescension, apathy, and suspicion. Those experiences have left them permanently scarred. The alternative scenario is the student who holds somewhat inflated beliefs about their academic writing based on prior professional or creative writing success. Whatever the source, many students have to navigate long-held perceptions and misconceptions about their writing. For students to mine the emotions that receiving writing feedback elicits, they have to trust that the purpose of my feedback is to assist in their growth and development as writers. By providing timely feedback that is clear, substantive, and focused on improving essential elements of their work, I help to build trust.

Authenticity is another requirement for trust-building in the classroom (Brookfield 164). Brookfield suggests that to build authenticity faculty should forge connections in the classroom by sharing interests beyond the roles of teacher and student. I find this especially beneficial in writing-intensive courses. One would be hard pressed to find a student who has taken a class with me who doesn’t know that I love Prince, travel, music, and dogs. Likewise, I could compile a never-ending list of the things that I have learned about my students from integrating activities that afford me the opportunity to peer into their non-academic lives.  I also engage in pre-class and break-time discussions that traverse myriad subjects with students. I keep notes so that I can refer to this information when they are bereft of ideas for topics. I also use their interests to illustrate course concepts during lectures and discussions. I find that it improves student engagement and confidence, which also builds trust. 

Tapping into the wealth of diverse interests and experiences that adult students bring to the classroom in this manner allows them to demonstrate expertise and share a bit of themselves with their classmates and me. An added benefit to this is that it builds trust between students as they get to learn more about the people with whom they are sharing a transformative learning experience. I find this to be another important trust-building component because when students are required to do peer reviews or work collaboratively, they are no longer being asked to trust the input of a stranger.

Ghosh, Whipple and Bryan caution that, if faculty “accomplishments are not geared toward meeting students' needs, their actual expertise may not be perceived as such by students” (334). At this level, students rightfully assume, and can easily verify, that faculty are accomplished in their disciplines. However, they do not assume that faculty, regardless of expertise, often struggle as they do at various stages of the writing process. To further establish trust I share my writing fallibility. Rather than undermining my credibility as some might assume, sharing my own writing struggles along with the strategies I use to overcome them helps students to remove unrealistic perceptions of writing and me. I have had multiple students tell me that learning that a professional writer and editor doesn’t just snap her fingers and produce high quality content was an “a-ha” moment for them. This reinforces trust by underscoring the fact that I am here to help them as writers because I understand their struggles.

In pondering my colleague’s warning, I realize that without obvious awareness I have been fostering trust in the classroom.  As human beings we are first in relationship t with ourselves and second with the larger human community. I view my classroom as a learning community. For a community to thrive, trust must be present. Although building trust can take time and work, it is worth it. Trust is born of humility and compassion, and I cannot think of a better place than the classroom to model these attributes of humanity (and retention).

Works Cited
Brookfield, Steven D. "Building Trust with Students." Brookfield, Steven D. The Skillful Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990. 163-176. Book Chapter.
Chopra, Deepak and Oprah Winfrey. Oprah & Deepak’s 21-Day Meditation Experience, Creating Peace from the Inside Out: The Power of Connection. November 2016. Audio.
Ghosh, Amit K., Thomas W. Whipple and Glenn A. Bryan. "Student Trust and Its Antecedents in Higher Education." The Journal of Higher Education (2001): 322-340. Article.
Macfarlane, Bruce. "A Leap of Faith: The Role of Trust in Higher Education Teaching ." (2009): 221-236. Article.
The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. Building Trust in the Classroom. 2015. PDF. 28 November 2016.

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