As we close out this year and prepare to open up the next one, I’ve been thinking about how to solidify the foundation we’ve built as a school district over these past four years. How do we put the systems and structures we’ve created to work for children and families? What will it take to make more impact in the classroom? How do we make sure our racial equity work penetrates the classroom? How do we forever change the trajectory and narrative in MMSD for students of color?
And in the last several weeks, students and teachers keep pointing me toward the same key idea: the importance of building trusting relationships. It matters in everything we do—but it is an especially important ingredient in the culturally responsive classroom.
Last week, members of our leadership team, including high school principals, had a meeting with African American student leaders from across our high schools. They told our team a lot, but their general message was that the most important ingredient for their success is the trusting relationship between teachers and students in the classroom when it is leveraged for deep learning.
Technical solutions—programs and professional development—will not have the desired impact if they don’t foster stronger, and more culturally responsive, relationships between children and adults.
Their recommendations struck me as simple and elegant.
#1 They told us to make sure we know what is going on in classrooms and to pay special attention to evidence of teacher-student rapport and trust.
#2 They told us to use student perceptions, especially from students of color or students that are struggling, about the school and classroom experience to inform decision making. That could include a more systematic approach for teachers to hear from their own students about what is working and not working in their classrooms.
#3 They told us to support teachers. Specifically, they believe that teachers need help understanding culture and how to nurture a more collaborative culture in the classroom (one more reflective of students’ home cultures) that is built on trust.
#4 They told us to encourage teachers to know their students, recognize and build on their talents, and offer authentic compliments.
#5 They told us to create support systems for all students, not just the ones that will be successful anyway.
#6 They told us to create spaces for students to share how they feel. Students need places where the micro-aggressions they experience daily and the negative narratives spun about them can be recognized for how damaging they are — and be re-framed or re-written.
I met with our Teachers of Color Advisory group this week and they too shared a set of recommendations that we will put into action that include ensuring a consistent voice in decision-making, clear paths of influence and development, and accountability that our racial equity work permeates every school and classroom. They mentioned that everything students of color need to thrive in an equitable school, including the generation of trust, teachers need as well.
Last month, Zaretta Hammond, author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” spoke with our educators about the critical importance of trust generation, attention to culture, and the creation of counter narratives.
She posited that trust can be generated when educators show vulnerability (albeit selectively), when they show affinity (meaning, recognize how they and their students are alike), when they share adversaries (meaning, embrace what they and their students are against), and when they demonstrate their competence.
Ultimately, she says trust must be the foundation of the teacher-student relationship because a student will not give you permission to push them to the edge of their own learning without it. Students need BOTH care and push and it is trust that sets the stage for the “relaxed alertness” necessary to be cognitively challenged.
Trust generation isn’t the only answer, but it is the fertile ground from which everything else grows. After all, learning is a partnership. With trust, students, and teachers, can engage in the productive struggle necessary for their exponential growth.