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The kindergartner had gotten lost and ended up in the 2nd grade wing. She looked around at all the big kids, a little bewildered but not quite scared as of yet. Then she spotted me standing outside my classroom door and her face broke into a radiant smile. She walked up to me, arms outstretched, and gave me a hug.

That little girl had no idea who I was. But she knew that I was a teacher, and in her a mind a teacher is someone you can trust to take care of you.

We don’t hear the word “trust” very often in policy circles. The coin of the realm consists of colder, metallic words like “data,” “sub-population,” and “accountability.” I have heard the bizarre term “psychometrician” more often than I have heard the word “trust.” Yet I can’t think of a more foundational concept to the policy pivot points on everything from testing to teacher prep.

Kids tend to trust their teachers. So do parents. Most principals worth their salt do, too. But I hear two extremes on whether “we” can trust teachers:

  1. “Trust us! We’re teachers. Get out of the way so I can close my door and teach.”
  1. “Why should we trust teachers? Look at the crisis of student achievement in this country!”

Both statements strike me as absurd. To the first point: Trust has to be earned, not given. Bad teachers are a small minority, but they do exist. Just being a teacher doesn’t entitle any of us to unfettered professional autonomy.

The second statement targets teachers as a satisfying scapegoat for deeper systemic problems: entrenched poverty, an unsustainable myth of perpetual American dominance, and a racially segregated system that is both separate and inequal in most American cities.

The more interesting policy question to me is this:

“If it is true that we have a crisis of teaching effectiveness in this country, how do we go about changing it?”

We’ve tried one approach for 13 years—high accountability, low autonomy. Since teachers can’t be trusted, we’ll micromanage them with scripted curricula and monitors who write you up if you’re on page 37 when you should be on page 34 (this actually happened in Oakland when I was student teaching there in 2003).

The resource problem with this approach is obvious: you’re putting time, money, and focus into monitoring teachers assumed to be mediocre, when you could be putting those resources toward developing skilled teachers—who don’t need to be monitored—instead.

The other problem with this approach is that it perpetuates the problem. Finland has the inverse model from our own—high autonomy, low accountability (by the American definition of the term). At the annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession, the Finnish delegation keeps expressing a simple explanation for their system’s success:

“We trust our teachers.”

But they can afford to. Teaching is a competitive profession in Finland, with ten applicants for every spot in a teacher prep program. So they put the accountability in place on the front end, with a selective process for a rigorous preparation program.

We tend to do the opposite. We let in anyone who passes a criminal background check, and we provide them with a prep program that can vary in effectiveness from dismal to outstanding. Then we micro-manage them for the rest of their career—even if they prove time and again that they are highly effective. 

If we can’t break that cycle, we’re never going to increase the competitiveness of the teaching profession. We won’t be able to raise the bar for entering the profession, because we won’t have enough people who want to be teachers.

Leaving aside the question of anemic salary scales, professionals in education want to be treated as…well, professionals. We’re willing to work hard and meet high standards. But once we have proven our effectiveness, we expect the autonomy accorded to experts in other essential professions like doctors, engineers, and architects.

On a panel in mid-June at the National Conference of State Legislatures, I brought up the Finnish line that “We trust our teachers.” The Education Chair from Alabama just about jumped out of his seat.

“My state ranks at the very bottom in student achievement!” he said. “Why should I trust teachers?”

His question didn’t offend me. In conversations earlier that day, it had become clear that he was on a sincere mission to provide students in his state with the kinds of schools they deserve.

I still don’t have a one-liner to answer his question: “Why should I trust teachers?” None of these replies seem complete.

 

“Because it beats the alternative.”

“Because bad teachers are not the reason your state ranks at the bottom in student achievement.”

“Because there are outstanding teachers in your state, and they can’t teach other teachers to become better if you don’t trust them.”

 

All three statements contain some measure of truth, but they don’t address the very real problem of widely variable teaching quality in his state.

I don’t have easy answers to this one, and I’d welcome any reader’s insight, whether it comes from your perspective as a teacher, parent, administrator, or legislator.

What is clear to me is this: As teachers, we need to earn that trust that a lost kindergartener placed in me so readily. Every teacher I know understands that trust is not a stamp or certificate. It’s not something you receive one day and hang onto for the rest of your career, like getting tenure or completing a Masters.

We earn our students’ trust every day. We renew it every day, and we rebuild it when it’s broken. Every time we stay late after school to get ready for the next morning’s lesson, we earn it. Every time we take a deep breath, then respond with kindness and patience to a student who has stretched our last nerve to the snapping point, we earn it.

The trust our students place in us, as that kindergartner did without a moment’s hesitation, is a gift. Proving ourselves worthy of that gift is at the very heart of our profession. 

11 Comments

Jason Parker commented on June 30, 2014 at 12:34pm:

Because it encourages growth?

Perhaps you could answer the question "Why trust teachers" with a slightly more in-depth answer about organizational management. 

I tend to believe that employees - across all organization types - when well-prepared (trained) and with some form of regular mentoring/reporting/accountability will do best when trusted to do their jobs well. It's the autonomy of the employees that helps foster growth and spur motivation to complete great and creative work. 

Douglas MacGregor's Theory X and Theory Y looks at two perspectives on the human nature of employees: either employees need to be watched because they lack motivation and dislike their work, or employees will seek additional responsibility and will be self-directed when allowed to be a part of setting work objectives. 

That's a very brief summary, but strikes me as an interesting starting point for a deeper conversation with those that ask "Why trust teachers?" 

...why trust employees? My argument: because self-directed and responsible employees take more pride in their work, are generally happier and have a higher sense of satisfaction and wellbeing, are more creative and innovative, and tend to stay at their organizations for longer stints than their "micromanaged" counterparts. 

 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 30, 2014 at 8:40pm:

Drive by Daniel Pink; Is teaching blue-collar or white-collar?

Jason, brilliant points. The ideas you cited made me think of Daniel Pink's Drive on motivation. I haven't read the whole thing, but this over-arching point stuck with me:

Carrots and sticks generally don't work very well in motivating human beings. Despite plenty of research that shows what DOES work--meaningful work, opportunities to collaborate, autonomy and shared decision-making--policies tend to go for the stick and carrot because they're easier to legislate and enforce.

I think there are some lessons from the private sector that could bring positive change to teaching, like those you mentioned. But we seem to have trouble placing teaching as a blue-collar vs. white-collar job. The image of unions is more blue-collar in many ways, and the pay:level of education ratio in teaching is fairly low. Yet the idea of according teachers the autonomy that doctors or architects have often takes people aback.

I think you nailed the rationale for trusting teachers, and if we cite research and the pragmatic, economic arguments you raise, we'll get further with the powers that be than we do with either angry rhetoric or impassioned pleas about our love for our students.

Alysia Krafel commented on June 30, 2014 at 1:03pm:

Finnish model

We use a system very like the Finnish model in that we are very, very picky about who we hire.  They have to pass teacher demonstration lessons with the staff watching in the back of the room.  But once we hire them, we set them free. We are all accountable to each other because we are a community.  High Autonomy, low supervision. Creative teaching and low turnover. Works for us.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 30, 2014 at 8:43pm:

Where did the Finns get their good ideas?

Love it, Alysia. Your comment made me think of a line I've heard from multiple Americans who visited Finland and asked where they came up with some particularly impressive innovation. They often look taken aback and say, "Ah, from America. But we know how to execute."

Where is your school?

Alysia Krafel commented on June 30, 2014 at 1:04pm:

Finnish model

We use a system very like the Finnish model in that we are very, very picky about who we hire.  They have to pass teacher demonstration lessons with the staff watching in the back of the room.  But once we hire them, we set them free. We are all accountable to each other because we are a community.  High Autonomy, low supervision. Creative teaching and low turnover. Works for us.

Alysia Krafel commented on June 30, 2014 at 1:04pm:

Finnish model

We use a system very like the Finnish model in that we are very, very picky about who we hire.  They have to pass teacher demonstration lessons with the staff watching in the back of the room.  But once we hire them, we set them free. We are all accountable to each other because we are a community.  High Autonomy, low supervision. Creative teaching and low turnover. Works for us.

Deidra Gammill commented on June 30, 2014 at 2:22pm:

Babysitters or Professionals?

Why trust teachers? Because either we are glorified babysitters or we are professionals. We can't be both - that would be (oxy)moronic.

Until states decide which we are, I don't think we'll see the kind of trust and autonomy you describe in Finnish education. The districts that have placed trust in proven teachers (like Alysia's) should be (emphasis on should) setting the example for neighboring districts.

I supposed that's one problem I have with all the states being autonomous when it comes to education - every state can "close its door and do its own thing," whether or not what they enact is good for teachers or good for students (and aren't they one in the same?).

The federal accountability model is flawed at best. It hands control to each state for how that accountability should be met. And the very ones equipped to answer that question (teachers) are not invited to the table. That's like an administrator putting me in a math classroom with a textbook written in Greek and saying, "You are capable and educated in English. So even though you know nothing about math, but we are giving you total autonomy to teach however you think best. Just make sure all your students can pass an AP Geometry test at the end of the year."

Why trust teachers? Because either we are being paid to babysit each day (and therefore in need of constant micro-management) OR we are professionals who earn autonomy just as we earn respect - one day, one student, one subject at a time.

And if they decide we're just glorified babysitters, I better get some CPR training. I'm not qualified to babysit according to our local hospital.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 30, 2014 at 8:47pm:

On Common Core...

Deidra, though most of the talk about Common Core has focused on other aspects, part of its promise is moving beyond that fragmented, kaleidoscopic system of not just states, but individual districts/school boards. There's a lot of resistance to "big brother" in this country (maybe a remnant of our throwing off "the British yoke?"), but one of the unspoken truths about why most of the high-performing nations do so well is that they have a more coherent national system, with connections between pre-K through grad school, teacher prep through departments of ed.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on June 30, 2014 at 8:54pm:

Mind meld: read this linked post!

I just read Mark Sandy's post, linked here, and it's a reminder of what kindred spirits we all find at CTQ. His post on his trip to Finland and the theme of trust echoes what I wrote and what we've been talking about on this thread.

Lisa Plichta commented on July 7, 2014 at 12:27am:

Why Trust Teachers?

My answer: Where would any of us be without them?

Your story about the little girl touched my heart, and I would bet that even in the bottom-ranked school district in the country, that is a scenario that occurs in its hallways.  When I reflect on my own education, I had a handful of "bad" teachers.  Either they had no inkling of best practice, gave empty grades, lacked management skills, were uninspiring, or left me with zero content that I retain to this day. But they were not people I distrusted.  Bad teachers do not equal bad people.  Teaching is an enormously complex art and science that a small percentage of educators truly master after years of practice, ongoing learning, and continued refinement.

As a twist, in an indirect way, I learned from those "bad" teachers too.  I learned how to patiently and respectfully tolerate a situation I would like to change, but cannot.  I learned that if I really want to know something, I can teach myself.  I learned that kids need structure.  I also learned that bad teachers can still be good people that I like and trust and go to if I need help.  

In my own classroom, these "bad" teachers have been my non-examples.  I learned what NOT to do if I want to be successful.  Those memories have been as necessary to my teaching experience as Bloom's Taxonomy--if not moreso.  I can equate it to the assessment strategy of providing students with examples of strong and weak work.  There is value in paying attention to the weak work.  So truly, I have to thank ALL my teachers for the ways in which they have contributed to who I am and what I do.  I may not be able to discuss the history of the Medici family at a cocktail party because of my bad World History teacher, but I can gratefully claim that every school I've attended and taught in has been full of teachers I could trust to take care of the students--at times in extraordinary and heroic ways.  

I do believe that all students deserve an excellent education and I am in favor of current curriculum reform efforts, more rigorous hiring processes, higher standards for teacher accountability, etc., but sometimes I just want us to relax a little bit and trust that while the long, stressful process of overhaul is underway, there is something to be learned from the "bad" teachers too.  You just have to think about it.

 

edtheoldcoach commented on July 7, 2014 at 7:40pm:

Teaching

In manufacturing, before we can find a solution to a problem we have to see if there is a problem.

We need to have a set of achievable and definable goals (preparation of students in careers and civic life), set up a method of measuring our ability to achieve those goals (Graphs showing Attendance, Quality, Schedule, Cost)  and determine whether the assets we put in place can achieve those goals (Teachers/Administrators) not overlooking our responsibility to maintain the best equipment (Teacher Performance Appraisals).

 

A former machinist.

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