I’m sure we’d all agree that a trusting classroom environment is crucial for students. We know that they naturally thrive in an environment where they can reach out to be heard and possibly take creative risks. The sense of community in a trust-based classroom is stronger, and students feel more like they belong to something, which, in turn, positively impacts their learning. All that's a given. But while teachers tend to start the school year relatively well in this area, somewhere along the line, things start to unravel. So, how do we go about actively creating this environment and, perhaps more importantly, maintaining it in the classroom?
One way to tangibly cultivate a sense of trust in the classroom is to ensure that the physical environment reflects trust. For example, the seating arrangement of a class sends an immediate message of trust or distrust. Sitting in rows (all facing the teacher at the front) or a U-shaped arrangement (everyone facing inward) each says something different about how much the teacher trusts the students. One approach says, “I have to have you all looking at me at all times,” and the other says, “Let’s learn together.” Compare these two:
Granted, the types of desks in the left image are designed to be more flexible. Nonetheless, any desk type can be reorganized in a shape that is more inviting than rows. Further, we’re talking about first impressions, here, as the needs for the class will shift throughout the year. (Rows might be necessary at some point, but they aren't immediately necessary.)
Of the two classrooms, though, which one would evoke more trust from the student perspective? Taking the time to mindfully choose a classroom layout that sends a message of trust is a step we can take before students even arrive in the classroom.
Once school has begun, a teacher’s choice of words, whether spoken or written, can also serve to cultivate trust or distrust. Are we actively creating a sense of trust in how we refer to the class and students? Take a look at these two classroom posters:
The use of “we” and “our” makes a huge difference in establishing the foundation for trust, here, particularly the vast difference in tone between “This is MY classroom” and “This is OUR classroom.” Further, the negative expectation of failure (snarkily cushioned with "if" statements”) versus the positive expectation of “will” sends out completely different messages of trust. It’s as though one teacher expects to have all sorts of problems, which automatically sends out an “I don’t trust you” message. The teacher on the right expresses a sense of confidence in the students (and himself/herself) that is designed to cultivate trust.
Imagine coming into a classroom on the first day and seeing one of these posters. Which classroom would you really want to be a part of? In which classroom would you feel more likely to express your thoughts and take creative risks? (On a side note, the poster on the left is offered as a “Motivational Poster” on eBay for $8.95. The other image is my revision of it.) Actively seeking to establish a sense of collaboration and community, once students are in the class, is another crucial step we can take.
Maintaining the trust throughout the year is probably the most difficult part. Well-intentioned teachers may start out the school year just fine. They’ve set up the classroom and diligently used language designed to inspire collaboration, but somewhere in October, things can fizzle. Kids start to fray our nerves; we lose patience and react without thinking. Unfortunately, losing that patience also means that any trust we’ve established will begin to dissolve.
Acclaimed educator Rafe Esquith (2007) notes, “It is deeds that will help the children see that I not only talk the talk but walk the walk.” Walking the walk entails not only our initial actions, but also our reactions. For example, if you’ve told students that you will use a particular procedure for getting their attention (such as raising your hand or counting to five), and instead, you lose it and start yelling at them (“Alright! Everybody QUIET!”), they will no longer trust you. You are not walking the path you said you’d walk. Once you’ve lost your cool, you’ve evaporated the trust, and you’ll have to work to build it up again.
Having a strategy for maintaining patience, even in the midst of chaotic mutiny, really helped me out with high school freshmen. My strategy was a little silly, I guess. I would visualize the calmest person I could think of: Mahatma Gandhi.
This sort of “channeling of Gandhi” strategy compelled me to pause before reacting—not unlike counting to ten, but a tad more inspirational. Who pops into your head as the epitome of patience and calm strength?
Another means of maintaining trust is to cultivate a mindset that is passionate for understanding. In this mindset, no matter what, you do whatever it takes to ensure your students “get” what you want them to get. Esquith (2007) offers this straightforward strategy in developing the mindset—answer all student questions:
I answer all questions. It does not matter if I have been asked them before. It does not matter if I am tired. The kids must see that I passionately want them to understand, and it never bothers me when they don’t. During an interview, a student named Alan once told a reporter, “Last year, I tried to ask my teacher a question. She became angry and said, ‘We’ve been over this. You weren’t listening!’ But I was listening! I just didn’t get it! Rafe will go over something five hundred times until I understand.”
What the student described is pure trust. This approach sounds easier than it is because having one student ask you something and then having the very next question be the same question can be exhausting and annoying. However, a kid who knows that you’ll answer his questions, no matter what, trusts you. In that “knowing” is the trust.
This kind of trusting classroom environment is attainable if we take some time to reflect on how we present the physical environment, what messages we convey, and actively seek to maintain it. What do you want your kids to “know” about you?
- Create a physical environment cultivates trust
- Use language that cultivates trust.
- Find strategies that will help you maintain patience and trust
- Answer all student questions to maintain trust.
Esquith, R. (2007). Teach like your hair’s on fire (Reprint). Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=11644
Gandhi, M.K. (1958). The collected works of Mahatma Gandhi (Vol.19, p. 233). Delhi, India: Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publications Division.