A month into last fall’s first-year writing course, one of my students emailed me and politely explained that he found one of the reading assignments offensive.
We met in person to discuss his concerns. On some level, our conversation was productive. I explained my reasons for assigning the reading, and he shared his concerns in more detail with me. Still, the encounter troubled me.
It underscored for me the dangers of students losing trust in their instructors’ ability and willingness to teach them well. Low student confidence in teachers and their choices for class assignments and activities means low engagement, and students who are not engaged in class do not learn. To support learning, then, it is crucial that we earn our students’ trust. We need to teach in such a way that students are willing to follow our lead in the readings, projects, and activities we assign, believing that the work we’re asking them to do will help guide their development, both academically and personally.
We lose student confidence on two levels. Some students mistrust our pedagogy. They find an assignment unhelpful or frustrating; I have had students tell me, in class, that an assignment is confusingly written. Sometimes these concerns are warranted; and we all have had to revise or scrap assignments that didn’t work properly. But even if the concerns aren’t warranted, even if we’re using tried-and-true methods and assignments, the fact remains that some students will feel that our teaching is not helping them learn. Yet other students will mistrust our ideology, fearing that the readings and projects assigned threaten their own beliefs. They see our teaching as designed not to support their growth but to advance our own agenda.
Mistrust, regardless of where it originates, has serious consequences. Students may pull back from class participation and encourage other students to pull back as well; they may consequently perform more poorly on assessments; most importantly, they miss the chance for personal and professional growth that comes with engaging fully with both the course material and their fellow students.
So, what can be done? When our teaching methods are new and unfamiliar to students, or when they disagree with (what they perceive to be) the course ideology, how can we earn or regain their trust?
There are two answers, I think.
The first crucial step is remembering that, as one of my colleagues likes to say, we are here to serve our students. As we make decisions about the methods to use in class, and the philosophies which ground it, it is essential that we make those decisions in light of our students’ goals, both personal and academic.
Paulo Freire argues that a meaningful education is one in which teachers are “partners of the students in their relations with them.” The imagery of partnership suggests that, at least in part, our purpose as teachers is to come alongside our students, identify their goals, and help them achieve it, rather than working for our own goals or even those of the educational establishment.
This partnership does not mean we ignore the published objectives of our courses. Students enrolled in first-year composition will not learn to write villanelles; they will learn to write academic research papers.
But partnership does mean that we connect our course objectives to students’ personal and professional goals. How, for instance, will my first-year writing course prepare students for advanced coursework? How will it help them succeed in their planned career path, as a nurse or a lawyer or a teacher? Asking questions like these makes it more likely that students will perceive our course not as a threat or a waste of time but as a well-planned learning experience, helpful to their personal and professional goals.
The second step to earning our students’ trust is intertwined with the first: if we are going to serve our students, if we are going to help them pursue their goals, then we need to trust our students. By this I mean that we work to think the best of our students, even when they call our teaching methods into question or disagree with us ideologically.
Freire champions this positive outlook on our students. He recommends that teachers “affirm” their students, recognizing that they are “beings in the process of becoming
— as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality.” This way of looking at our students demands patience. It refuses to define students by the very few weeks they are enrolled in our courses and instead sees their identity as something dynamic. Each of our students is in the process of becoming a better version of herself or himself. It is worth enduring the messy, difficult process of growth, trusting that our students have in them the potential to become more fully themselves, every one a thoughtful, capable, astonishing individual.
In practical terms, there are many ways to establish trust between ourselves and our students. One of my favorite strategies is meeting regularly one-on-one with students, not only to review coursework but also just to talk. Learning about my students’ career goals, what their family background is, and even what they do for fun is helpful in designing a course that serves my students and supports their growth potential. To the students, one-on-one meetings assure them that their voice is being heard.
Second, if we are to partner with students, we need to trust them and take their ideas seriously. Use midterm course evaluations to give students the opportunity to share what’s working for them in the course and what they find challenging. Invite students to come to you with their concerns and tell them about occasions when this kind of feedback has resulted in actual change.
A third strategy is giving students plenty of choice, both in the design of the course and its topics, when possible. Choice allows students to customize the course for their learning preferences and professional goals. Allowing students to pick which test essay question to answer or what kind of final project to complete gives them confidence that the course methodology will help them succeed, while allowing them to pick topics soothes concerns that the teacher may use the course to advance some agenda. The very act of giving students choices is affirming, as it demonstrates teacher confidence in their ability to make good decisions.
Lastly, building trust means we need to own up to our mistakes. This is difficult but so worthwhile. In acknowledging our mistakes, we relinquish some authority and put our students’ concerns first. Doing so assures students that we will not ignore their concerns out of some misguided desire to make ourselves look perfect. Acknowledging flaws is a key part of keeping our teaching transparent, accessible, and trustworthy.
Earning our students’ trust is demanding and difficult. It is also critically important: trust is key to the success of our class. More importantly, it is key to validating our students as human beings and working to support their continued growth and success.
Freire, Paulo. “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” http://puente2014.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/87465079/freire_banking_concept.pdf
. Accessed 20 February 2018.
Megan Von Bergen is the sole writing and literature instructor at Emmaus Bible College (Dubuque, Iowa).
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