My Three Steps for Building Trust with Students

by | 09.1.19

Robyn Howton is a high school teacher in Delaware. Follow her on Twitter @robynhowton.

For the entire 28 years I’ve taught, I’ve had one ground rule in my classroom: We are going to respect each other, our ideas and ourselves. I tell students about this “rule” on the first day, before I’ve told them anything about myself. To become a community, we need that foundation, because learning in a group can feel scary.

I’ve found that if I take a few steps to build respect, trust and support into interactions with my kids, they’ll see my classroom as a place where it’s safe to take the risk of being a learner.

Starting the year off building connections with students allows me to support them in the ways they need later on – which lifts us all up toward achieving our learning goals for the year.

1. I build intentional time for conversation into the first few minutes of class.

Something I’ve moved away from in my practice is giving kids work to do from the minute they sit down. Instead, I use those first five to 10 minutes to just talk with them. I ask my students how their days are, what’s happening in their neighborhoods. I do it while I’m taking attendance, so it’s low pressure; they know I’ll be glancing at my computer, and they can say as much or as little as they want. Sometimes, a student will share something serious that happened in their lives or in the community. They know that while not everyone has had the same experience, everyone wants to provide support. And then they’re all a little bit kinder that day.

2. I show students that I’m still learning, too.

I want my kids to know we’re all on the same team, working toward the same goal. So another step I take is to show my students that I’m still a learner, too. I share that I was taught to read and write in an unusual way – so sometimes, I spell words wrong, and it’s okay for them to point it out. They see me being vulnerable in front of them by making mistakes, and they see me modeling respect and support when someone “messes up” trying to answer a question or says, “I don’t understand.” When kids realize they’re struggling, I don’t want them to start feeling like they don’t belong on our team; I want to make sure they know that they do belong.

Sometimes, it takes a while for a student to buy into that. A couple years ago, I had a student who had realized that she was very smart, but very far behind. She was angry and defiant; she told me the work was too hard, and I expected too much. I offered her extra help and more time, but I understood that her anger wasn’t really directed at me, it was directed at her life – at the circumstances she found herself in and at the embarrassment she felt in her struggle to learn. The following year, she greeted me with a hug on the first day and said, “I missed you over the summer.” Every day, she sat down near students who were excelling and asked them question after question. Once she was ready to believe that she belonged in our community, on our team, her work ethic floored me. She stayed positive through setbacks and trauma in her personal life, and I know she can truly thrive in college.

3. I find ways to form out-of-classroom connections.

In every class I teach, there are usually kids I’ve interacted with at track or football or after-school tutoring, and when other kids see that, it helps foster trust. So this is a suggestion I would offer new teachers: If there’s something you enjoy doing, find a way to bring it into your school. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment; when my son was young, I kept score at some of the school games and brought him with me so he could watch. If you support a sport or help with a play, you’re going to give up a little bit of your time, but it’s going to make your classroom run so much more efficiently.

As teachers, we all have to find our own ways of letting kids know that we see who they are and that we are willing to work with them. But anything that helps our kids see us as people who respect and care about them will be worth it, because those relationships give them a reason to work a little bit harder at moments when they feel like giving up. When it gets tough, they’ll stay with us a little longer – and together, we’ll get there.

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