Trust

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 I was a teacher, and in her a mind a teacher is someone you can trust to take care of you.

That trust is a gift. Earning it lies at the heart of our profession.

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.

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