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Earning Students’ Trust in Your Teaching

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.

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