In the wake of the Florida events that have shaken our nation, I have spent a great deal of time reflecting. Reflecting on my life, the work I do with schools, and the legacy that I will one day leave behind. This reflection has reminded me that educational reform is not just about helping schools move the data, but about creating environments that are inclusive, thoughtful, resilient, and full of overall decent human beings that contribute to this world as compensation for their existence in it.
Yet these traits don’t just develop on their own. While potentially wonderful, it is a rare occasion for educators to arrive on the first day of school to find these qualities fully developed in everyone. No, it is much more likely that these characteristics have to be explicitly taught, fostered, nurtured, and developed when it matters the most. So how do we create these fully inclusive environments where all children and adults are able to thrive and perform as their best selves? There’s no set formula, but one key component is to build trusting relationships. Enabling strong relationships built on trust is not only critical for strong academic achievement, but a vital step in fostering the people we should all aspire to be.
So what is trust? Trust is belief. It is the belief that you are here for me and I am here for you – that we have each other’s back. It is is knowing that when a person says they are going to do something, they do it. It is knowledge that one is safe to say what they believe and know that it will not be “held against” them. It is the certainty that the only failure is the unwillingness to try something, and the belief that “learning mistakes” are opportunities to continue on a path of lifelong learning rather than to ridicule. These days, this sort of trust in each other’s humanity and emotional safety is like a unicorn – almost mythical.
Why is building trusting and emotionally safe environments for every student and adult so difficult in schools? Well, it’s difficult to say – backgrounds, experiences, cultural differences, language barriers, emotional baggage, prior skills, and emotional intelligence are just a few reasons that might contribute. But it also comes, in part, from this issue of expectations. Do we all have the same expectations, are our expectations of each other understood, and are our expectations driven by assumptions and judgements about the individuals around us. When we go to a school where we are not safe to challenge judgements, assumptions, and expectations with each other, it is easy for a particular comment about a homework assignment made by a teacher to lead to big problems.
So how can we build the trust needed to create an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive?
- See everyone as human beings first
- Take time to evaluate your own judgements (“this is good…”, “this is bad…”), where they come from, and remember that when someone doesn’t believe the same thing as you, it does not make it wrong
- Take time to make sure that everyone’s expectations are understood – students’, staffs’, and parents’
- Teach everyone active listening skills (students, teachers, paraprofessionals, etc.)
- Use discussion protocols to resolve conflict when it inevitably arises
- Reserve regular time for reflection – for yourself, teachers, and students
- Get feedback and a variety of perspectives on how trust is earned, fostered, and measured in your school
In the end, building the trust needed for great learning to take place is going to require that we all become a little vulnerable to others and get more in tuned with ourselves. It is going to require that we accept each other, with all of our differences, as fellow human beings. And It is also going to take some time. We are so wired to set goals, monitor progress towards them, implement district initiatives, etc. that it will take some time for schools to learn two things: a) that implementing initiatives and meeting goals is so much more effective when you have a relationship built on trust with the person with whom your are planning, and b) that the journey to the goal is the goal.
Even though this work is demanding and sometimes wearisome, it does pay off. Some of the benefits of intentionally addressing the climate through trust are:
- Decrease stress levels
- Creates a support system within the school environment
- Fosters a sense of comradery
- Develops a community where each person is a member
- Fulfills the need to be heard as a person
- Creates a share ownership to ongoing growth and learning
- Increased confidence and ability to contribute
- Increased student achievement