The Basics – Trust as the cement

The basis of relationships is trust, how much of it is there and what it is based on.

I’ve tried to lay out our origins in small groups, on the infrequency of strangers in our midst. This is embedded in the universal distrust of city folk, people who deal with strangers and who are strangers.

I may trust you simply b/c I know you. I know your habits, your frame of mind, your history, the influences that impinge upon you, even your diet. It doesn’t mean I like you or will entrust my family or my fortune with you; it just means I know you and can predict what you will do. There’s a certain comfort level there.

Trust may be based on more than familiarity. I may not have seen you before, but if you belong to the same group I do, then to the extent that I know the members of that group, I can trust you. If it’s the extended family, that’s one thing; if it’s a religious faith we share, that’s another. If it’s nationality (a recent phenomenon I need to blog on, too), it may depend on where we are: if we’re in-country, you’re just another person to me; but if we are ex-patriates, we may trust each other a little b/c we share a nationality.

Trust allows us to take some things for granted: I can read your mood through facial expression, gesture, and language. I know if you are friendly or hostile, harried or relaxed, open or closed to me. I know the limits and I know you know the limits to our relationship. Can we borrow money from each other, ask the other to pick up our daughter at school, show up to help us move, etc?

Because I know you to some extent, it eases our relationship. I don’t have to be alert all the time around you b/c I know what you are going to do. You will not surprise me with your behavior, attitude, values, habits, food or music; it will be easy within the limits of personality differences. I know you will not force me to deal with a difficult circumstance such as listening to music I don’t understand or dance when I can’t . I will not find myself standing out in church b/c I am not kneeling and standing or bowing or dancing – things I don’t do in my church. I will not come face to face with a type of person I am suspicious of. None of that will happen in your surroundings and I know this and can relax somewhat around you.

In the classroom, the teacher deals with lots of children. They have personalities and backgrounds of some variety. But if they come from the same social group I do, from the same neighborhood or small town, then the teacher knows what to expect from these children, can “read” them, and will not be surprised by them. The teacher exudes a sense of comfort around these children and communicates that comfort to them.

But if the teacher is faced with children who do not share his values, do not speak like the children in his social sphere, do not dress like them, and seem to have heterodox notions of learning, authority, work, school, and accomplishment, then the teacher may be struck by consternation and insecurity, not quite knowing what to expect from these children. A vague sense of unease characterizes the relationship and is communicated to the children no matter how kind and sweet the teacher is with them otherwise.

One issue that rears up in education now is the presence of many ethnicities in our classes. Other presences include immigrants, the “differenly abled”, openly gay students, and so on. The teacher may be perfectly open to those children and applaud the diversity in his classroom, but still not quite know how to interact with these kids, what to expect from them or their parents. One teacher confided in me that she was physically afraid of Black students and Hispanic students. She knew it was wrong but that was her feeling.

At this point, it is fair to introduce the dimension of trust. If we feel we know these kids, we feel we can trust them – not necessarily to do the right thing or to do everything we want them to, but we know what we can expect from them. If we do not know them, the element of trust may suffer. It is a matter of positive feedback (in the original sense of the term): the teacher conveys the lack of trust, the student feels that and responds with similar lack of trust in the teacher, which reinforces the teacher’s sense of alienation from the student.

If we read the many thousands of posts on dealing with students that we find on various fl teacher listservs, we see the sequelae of a breakdown in trust; I feel it explains a lot, like a good theory. Teachers feel scattered and under pressure b/c they do not trust the students to learn. The students react to that lack of confidence in them on the part of their teacher by pulling back, expressing reluctance, their own lack of trust now in the teacher. The teacher sees this as a vindication of her lack of trust and also as reason to trust even less. The positive feedback loop builds to such an extent that we have the scene in To Sir, With Love in the teachers’ lounge with the veterans talking about their students as if they were animals.

Remember, everyone in this is a victim. Breaking out of the loop is harder b/c this breakdown in trust extends to the link between teacher and parent and between teacher and administrator. The admins don’t feel the teachers have their backs and will gladly hang them out to dry if anything goes wrong. The teachers feel no support from the admins. Meanwhile, the parents feel no one hears them or, worse, that no one in the school cares about their child. So the parent then becomes aggressive in making sure his child’s needs are met, which may confirm the teacher’s lack of trust in the parent that originated from perhaps different backgrounds, customs, expectations of education, views of authority, or even different languages.

In looking for allies, both teachers and students may find each other, sometimes to each other’s benefit and sometimes to the detriment of the class and even school as a whole. Teachers need support and seldom get it, so students are available just like a desperate mother may enlist her child as a surrogate adult partner. The teacher may favor a child or type of child as supporting the teacher. That, of course, alienates the other children, furthering the teacher’s sense that “they don’t like me.”

We can extend this breakdown in trust as an explanation of failures in communication and relationships outside the school setting. I may do that another time to help explain what teachers see as “kids these days”.

Addendum April 2010 – from Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great Amerian School System p. 66

They ignored the fundamental importance of trust among those who make schooling effective: students, teachers, principals, and administrators. In my conversation with him, Cohn cited the work of sociologists Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider, who maintain in their study Trust in Schools that successful school reform depends on an atmosphere of trust. Trust “foments a moral imperative to take on the hard work of school improvement.” Trust, not coercion, is a necessary precondition for school reform.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *