on trust

It’s the Sunday before classes start, and I’m feeling both ok and doubtful of myself and my teaching practice this year. The past two school years have been strange and chaotic in ways that I could not have predicted, and I’m bracing for another year of chaos. I find myself emotionally depleted in ways I have not been before at the end of the summer, and I am trying very intentionally to not utterly flame out this year. I am slowly learning to hold myself with more grace and compassion, and I am learning how to genuinely extend that grace and compassion to those around me.

In the midst of all of this, I find myself thinking a lot about trust. How to build trust with my students, the trust that does or doesn’t exist among my colleagues, with our administration, with the district, the trust between families and the school, between families and the district…

I am realizing that just because I want my students, their families, and my colleagues to trust me, to know that I am doing my best to be compassionate and still maintaining high standards (the “Warm Demander” that Zaretta Hammond talks about in “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”), that doesn’t mean that I will automatically get anyone’s trust. (There is also a lot to unpack with the term “high standards”, but that’s for another day.) That trust is not automatic seems like an obvious statement, but some things happened at our school last week (that I’m not going to get into here) really made me think about how sometimes we assume a level of trust that isn’t there, and it can be upsetting or offensive when we realize that other folks just… don’t trust us.

I’m currently reading Elena Aguilar’s book “Onward”, and the chapter for September is on “Building Community” and how vital trust is to community in any setting. It was a timely read this weekend, and Aguilar defines trust as this:

Trust is an emotional state. It is the feeling of confidence we have in another’s character and competence… Distrust, therefore, is suspicion of integrity and capabilities.

Elena Aguilar, “Onward”, p 101

Trust, and correspondingly, community, is built over time. Sometimes it seems to me that trust was quickly eroded, and I’ve felt astonished at how quickly trust disappeared, but now I think perhaps there wasn’t any genuine trust there to begin with. Perhaps what I thought of as “trust” was really a series of assumptions based on hierarchical roles and visible identity markers and the accompanying biases. In the classroom, I am an Asian American woman teaching science – my Asian identity may take precedence over my female identity when it comes to the competence that my students and their families ascribe to me in terms of science teaching. I am also in the positional role of teacher – surely someone evaluated my competence and decide that I was “good enough” to teach. But have I demonstrated any competence the minute my students walk into the room? What might a colleague with different identity markers experience when it comes to assumed trust in the classroom or in the school building?

Someone said to us this week “when students walk into your classroom, they’re asking, Can I trust you?” – which I think is true and not true. I don’t think students walk into my classroom wanting or needing to share their deepest selves with me, and that’s ok. I don’t need to be a trauma detective (thanks to Alex Shervin Venet for introducing me to that term, and I’d encourage all teachers to reflect on her blog post about setting up trust at the start of the year, What I wish teachers knew about “what I wish my teachers knew”). But I think my students are watching me, to see if I am competent and have integrity, to see if they can learn from me, how I will treat them, and whether what I say I value actually lines up with what I do. There are many different decision points throughout the school year that will build or erode the trust that my students have in me, and simply saying “trust me!” is not enough. (In fact, I think if I were to say that and not follow through, that would do more harm than not saying “trust me” to begin with.) All of this brings to mind the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

I want my students and colleagues to trust me, and I want to trust them in return. I want to be a part of the resilient communities that Elena Aguilar describes in “Onward.” I want school to look different than the same old, same old that we had pre-pandemic (which honestly feels like a lifetime ago- this is now the third class of students I am teaching in this on-going global health crisis). But that level of trust takes demonstrated actions, consistent behaviors, and – figuring out how to deal with conflict in healthy ways. My hope for what school could/should be is not the same as that of others, and to work toward a goal we have to first agree on what the goal will be.

I feel like building trust in my classroom space is doable, but I honestly don’t know if I will be able to move the needle very much in some of the other (adult) spaces I’m in this year – I already know going into things that I am emotionally depleted, and teaching in any circumstances is an emotionally heavy lift. I’m learning how to set boundaries in my personal and professional life, and some of that means accepting that things will not be “perfect” in all the ways that I want them to be. It can be frustrating when I feel like that there’s a better way that things could go, and not seeing that outcome in reality. But I’m hoping that by working on my own resilience as an educator, and unpacking my own behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being (also from Aguilar’s work, this time from Coaching for Equity), it’s a start to building more trust in the spaces that I inhabit. And we all must start somewhere.

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