If each of us stops for a second and takes a moment to reflect, it would be easy to recall a time when we were hurt by someone whom we once trusted. It is likely that you can vividly remember the moment and feelings associated with the injustice. That “hurt”, even if it is years old, has most likely left a scar and damaged your ability to fully commit to a person or a goal.
In previous blogs, we have referenced Joe Rantz and his story told by Boys in the Boat. It is easy to empathize with the hurt that Joe Rantz suffered. The mind’s eye can easily create a scene that depicts a 12-year-old boy standing alone with tears streaming down his face as he watched his dad, step-mom, and brothers pull away in the family car without him after being told he was not welcome to go with them to their new, undisclosed location. In a fleeting moment, Joe’s innate instincts of family, trust, and dependence were abandoned and his survival was now solely his responsibility. Some of us have personal children who are near Joe’s age and it is unimaginable to think of them stealing food and fending for themselves.
The betrayal that Joe experienced had ramifications on his personality and world view as he matured. Needless to say, Joe struggled with trust. Not only did he struggle in his interpersonal relationships, but his lack of trust hindered his growth as a rower. His coaches observed that Joe always held back some effort, lacking faith that his teammates would be fully invested. Joe was unable to become an elite rower until he could trust his teammates and coaches. It was not until Joe’s teammates proved to him that they were worth his trust, that they could compete as a team for the gold medal. Author Daniel J. Brown describes Rantz during this moment:
He could finally abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that he and the boy in front of him and the boys behind him would all do precisely what they needed to do at precisely the instant they needed to do it. He had known in that instant that there could be no hesitation, no shred of indecision. He had had no choice but to throw himself into each stroke as if he were throwing himself off of a cliff into a void, with unquestioned faith that the others would be there to save him
While it is unlikely that our students are in the exact same situation in which Joe was abandoned, many of our students have been hurt, betrayed, abused or disappointed by the ones who they are supposed to trust the most. The pain our students have suffered in their lives outside of school has undoubtedly affected their perspective of teachers, counselors, and administrators inside of schools.
While a student’s pain may be real and justified, we cannot blame a student’s lack of academic growth or attendance on his/her upbringing or family life. Once the adults understand why there is mistrust, which can often be a very real and valid reason, the teachers, counselors, and administrators are tasked with gaining and proving themselves to be worthy of the student’s trust. This can take a LONG time and may even take years of consistent action and investment but is all worth it. Without their trust, we cannot expect them to invest in our school and learn with authenticity and grow as an individual. When working with a distrusting student, school personnel should consider the following strategies:
- Be consistent – Trust may be earned easier if the adult is the same person day after day. Often students who have scars from their past can trust and relate to an adult who is the same person day in and day out in their emotions and positive outlook on life.
- Show up – A student may simply need to know that the adults in his/her school are reliable and are going to be at school every day.
- Mean what you and say what you mean – Our words can carry a lot of weight with students. Adults often say, “If you do this, I will do that” but do not follow through. If we commit that future actions will have specific effects, either rewards or consequences, then we need to be prepared to deliver on that promise. Pairing your words with actions will develop a culture of trust, even though adolescents may not like it at the time.
As a ninth-grade academy, we only have 180 school days to make an impact on students before they are promoted to the 10th grade. The limited time we have with our students makes each day critical, especially when one considers the added challenge of reversing distrust in adults and/or the education system. We are cognizant of the issues and limited time and are intentional with our students to learn their names and their backgrounds as quick as possible. In addition to teachers as advisors in homerooms and House meetings; we repetitively communicate our expectations of attendance, academics, and behavior. Additionally, we are intentional in our parent-teacher relationships by communicating when students are struggling in various domains. Read further to learn about some of the unique strategies we use in order to earn our students’ trust from the first day of school.
- Transitioning into high school – our faculty, staff, and administration meet with our rising ninth-graders multiple times in the spring so that we can begin to learn names, and students can become familiar with our procedures and expectations.
- Learn their story – Dr. Connie Franklin, our principal, often says, “Every student has a story and every story matters.” We have found it to be true that until we know the details of the student’s life outside of school, academic growth and achievement will be hindered.
- Be vulnerable – Not only does every student have a story, but so does every teacher. Having our teachers be vulnerable and share their own personal stories has allowed students to connect with the teachers, it has humanized our teachers, and has opened the door for a real connection.
- Be available – Students with trust issues may need extra time for assignments and may require individual attention. Teachers being available before or after school can expedite a relationship built on trust.
While many students struggle with trusting others due to past or current experience, it is our hope that our intentional relationship building will facilitate the connection they need to promote positive educational outcomes. We believe that a connection with just one adult in our building can promote student achievement, improve attendance, and increase the likelihood of a student graduating. As educators, we have a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of our students’ lives, especially those who have been wronged in their past, just as Joe Rantz was. By intentionally building trust, we can show students their worth and their future. Put simply, relationships matter.
This blog was written by David Leenman. Mr. Leenman is in his 13th year of education. He has served in both middle and high schools. Before becoming an assistant principal, Mr. Leenman worked in special education and history and coached basketball, football, and soccer.