As schools reopen in various phases from distance learning imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges teachers will face is building effective learning relationships with their students. In a University of Minnesota survey conducted in June 2020 by Kim Gibbons and Katie Pekel, the most frequently cited worry expressed by more than 15,000 educators across the state was relationship building. And, in his Feb. 19 MinnPost commentary, Kent Pekel argued that the right way to open up schools for students was to focus on building relationships “with and among them.” In the face of the public outcry over racialized violence and discrimination in the spring and summer of 2020, and the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin, relationship-building efforts will also need to be aimed at countering racism and building racialized students’ belonging in school.
To respond to these challenges, we recommend that teachers emphasize trust-building with students – as soon as in-person classes begin.
We recently partnered with veteran teachers and staff members at Harding High School, a large “Beating the Odds” urban public school in St. Paul, to learn how they built trust with students. We interviewed a diverse group of students at Harding and asked them to identify staff members who had helped them feel like they belonged there. The staff members they nominated had an average of 13 years of professional experience between them, and included classroom teachers, counselors and a cultural liaison. Seven were white, one was Latina, one Native American, one African American, and one Asian American.
Six unspoken queries
We observed these teachers and staff members in their classrooms and offices and interviewed them twice. Our data showed that these staff members knew that students were constantly reading them and trying to figure out what researcher Zaretta Hammond calls their “stance” – their credibility and value. Our data analysis showed that their strategies for building trust revolved around responding to six unspoken queries they had learned were often on the minds of their students.
Why are you here? Being clear about what motivates you
These staff members were all mainly motivated by “making a difference” in students’ lives. One white female English teacher said she was motivated by “making sure the students get the education they need and deserve.” An African American cultural liaison said, “How many lives have you touched to change and make this place better than when you inherited it? The students were concerned about teachers who clearly “didn’t want to be there,” or were just there to “get a paycheck.”
How much do you know and care about me? Being empathetic
These staff members all had different ways of being empathetic with students, holding compassionate understandings of the challenges they faced. The African American cultural liaison mentioned above said he often heard students say, “We have no food in the house” (he kept a “snack store” in a storage closet in his office where students could buy various items to get them through the day). He added, “Some of them don’t believe that they will own a house.”
How much do you respect me? Being optimistic and avoiding unnecessary judgment
A vitally important part of establishing trust for these staff members was communicating respect for students. They did this mainly by “seeing positives” in kids and acting on their strong shared beliefs in students’ capabilities. Second, the staff had learned the importance of “not judging” students. A white female science teacher said that for students who had struggled in class on a given day, it was crucial to wipe the slate clean and start fresh the next day. She said, “Every day is a new chance.”
How real are you? Being self-aware and credible
Several staff members emphasized how they needed to be up front about who they were in earning students’ trust. The African American cultural liaison referred to his office as a “safe haven” for African American students in the school, “so they can hear some positive things. … Because they got some negative things outside.” While the white teachers in the study sometimes mentioned race in their relationships with students, often they connected with them by finding common ground in their social class background or other out-of-school life experiences.
Do you know how to help me learn? Creating classroom belonging, building student academic engagement, and practicing equity pedagogy
The students emphasized how important it was that their teachers knew how to help them learn, and the staff members strove to ensure they were learning in several ways. First, they constructed supportive, comfortable, and engaging learning environments. One even asked her students at the beginning of each course what their ideal classroom “sounds like, feels like, and looks like.” Second, they knew how to practice equity pedagogy, which in their terms, meant “meeting students where they are.” They facilitated peer learning in their classrooms, created leadership opportunities for students, and were inclusive – ensuring that all students were part of the classroom community. Third, they engaged students with learning by using culturally responsive teaching, drawing on their own personalities, and using ample play and humor in their classes.
Commitment to students
What are you willing to do to help me? Being patient, available, and willing to invest emotional labor
Maybe most importantly, these staff members showed students they were committed to them. Having patience was a big part of this. They were also available for students and did not hesitate to get close to them when needed. They often exhorted students to move closer to the front of the room. Some of them kept their door open at lunchtime, so “you can sit and eat lunch with us,” and talk about “those real life experiences.” One student said of the white school counselor, “He let me talk to him about everything and that was great and so now I’m just like if I have a problem, I’ll just speak out about it.” For his part, the counselor said one of the keys was to demonstrate to students his commitment to them: “If students believe you can truly help them, and you are committed to their success, trust comes quickly.”
Teachers, teacher candidates and staff members in other schools can develop these and other culturally responsive means of developing trust with students. The key is to ask themselves, both individually and in collaborative professional learning efforts, what they can do to build trust with their students, and to explore how they might respond to the sorts of student queries mentioned here. It is likely that more coordinated school and district-wide professional learning efforts around skill-building for trusting relationships could have substantial impacts on student belonging, engagement and achievement.
Peter Demerath, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development at the University of Minnesota. Sara Kemper, Ph.D., is a research associate at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the U of M. Eskender Yousuf is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development at the U of M. Bodunrin Banwo, Ph.D., is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development at the U of M.
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