Eureka! I’m sitting in Laura Press’ 11th Grade AP Language class watching 44 kids dutifully spend 15 completely silent minutes taking the hardest vocabulary quiz I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Anyone into zeugma? How about litote? Chismus, anyone?
Like Jennifer’s kids and Dennis’s kids, Laura’s AP Lang students are a diverse mix of African-American, Latino/a, white and Asian students. These are honors kids; on the day I’m here, one standout brainiac is a Latino guy who smoothly explains the origins of the Cold War and its relationship to Kennedy’s inaugural address in terms so swift and packed with meaning that my note-taking can’t keep up with his remarks. An African-American guy in big glasses and a jeans shirt explains to me that “zeugma” is when you use one word to link two distinct thoughts, as in “she broke his car and his heart.”
So before I lose my conversational thread and my mind (yay zeugma!), let me tell you that as I watch Laura’s students participate in an analysis of the rhetorical devices in Kennedy’s speech, I remember the Trust Line and wham! it all comes together.
Back when I was trying not to quit teaching, I somewhat pathetically ordered mountains of books with titles like: Stop Burnout Now! and Refreshing the Fire Within! All of them had similar messages (get to know your students, have friends, learn) but one, a slim book called Avoiding Burnout and Increasing Your Motivation by Lee Canter and Marlene Canter introduced an idea they called the Trust Line. “The fact is that every one of your students has established a positive or negative level of trust in you before he or she even reaches your classroom,” they say. And as I watch Laura’s class two days after seeing Cynthia’s class, I realize I am seeing the Trust Line in action.
The thing is, there are many ways we describe groupings of students–race, socioeconomic status, gender, academic proficiency, language spoken at home–in order to decide how to reach them. But we’re leaving out an extremely important component in student learning. That component is how much trust the students have for the institution of school in the first place.
I am not talking about an innate quality. I’m talking about a learned habit—specifically, the learned habit of engaging with teachers. All of us are born with the ability to persist in learning new things despite repeated failure; if we weren’t, nobody would ever walk. But some students have a series of negative experiences in school or at home or both that cause them to distrust themselves and/or adults, and these negative experiences cause them to develop defensive habits that protect them from engaging with school and with teachers.
These trust habits have a radical effect on the mood of any class and on the teacher’s experience in coming to work every day. In the fantasy movie version, a great teacher just strides into a class packed with resistant kids, motivates the shit out of them and then next thing you know, the kids are all winning the Academic Decathalon. But it’s way, way, way, way, way harder than that.
A teacher with students who come in on the negative side of the Trust Line will have to invest a great deal of time and patience in restoring trust before real learning can begin, and that work is often painful, exhausting and demoralizing for the teacher. What those movies leave out is that if a teenager has suffered serious neglect, abuse or other trauma, no matter how inspirational you are, in all honesty, that teenager may never be able to trust adults. But as the Canters point out, “you can’t accomplish anything without trust.”
And as I sit in Laura’s class, where these honors kids walk in eager, confident and ready to learn, I realize that when we talk about student growth, we need to find a way to talk about student trust level first. We can’t just demand academic growth in a vacuum. We also need to talk about how much time it may take to create conditions in which the students in each class will be able to trust the teacher enough to learn.
To describe the basic ways I’ve seen the Trust Line play out in school, I’ve created five basic “trust habit” categories. These habits often described as “motivation” but the idea is a misdirect, because a lack of trust will inhibit motivation or force it into unhealthy directions. In my experience, these trust habits have nothing to do with students’ intelligence. I’ve seen super-smart students in all categories. Most classes have a combination of trust levels, but those I’m observing for this blog offer very different mixes:
These students have had a positive history with adults and with school. They pay attention without being asked to do so, contribute positively in class and are willing, even anxious, to demonstrate publicly their wish for the teacher’s approval. They are motivated by grades and turn in every assignment. If they don’t understand something, they ask for help and come after school for conferences. (positive trust)
These students do well in classes that interest them, less well in classes that do not interest them. If they don’t understand something, they will ask a teacher’s help if they like that teacher. They avoid making teachers angry or annoyed and almost never cause any problem in class unless everyone else is acting out. They turn in most or all of their assignments. (positive trust)
These quiet students are compliant but for a variety of reasons are afraid to contribute in class. They sometimes do not do homework or in-class work, possibly because they are afraid of being wrong or because they think they are stupid. They frequently demonstrate boredom but almost never act out in class. If they are struggling in school, they sometimes will come for after-school if asked to do so but often will not because they don’t want to be a bother. (negative trust)
These sociable students often talk with friends while the teacher is talking or when classmates are answering questions but rarely cause major disruptions. They often do not do homework or in-class work, possibly because they feel stupid due to a history of doing no work, which in turn has caused them to lag behind. Gregarious, they can be motivated by a teacher’s approval, but a teacher’s disapproval usually shames them and causes them to act out in order to demonstrate to their friends that they do not care. If struggling or failing classes, they rarely come after school because it’s embarrassing to ask for help. (negative trust)
In a reverse of the above two patterns, these are students who desperately seek engagement with an adult even if that engagement is negative. If they cannot get approval, they will be satisfied with any emotion, including anger. Their overwhelming need for attention often causes them to cause disruptions that bring the entire class to a standstill. (extremely negative trust–makes other students afraid to trust)
If you think I’m wrong, please let me know. I really want to understand this better. But it seems to me that every class offers a different mix of students, even at the same school, even in the same subject. One year I had a dreamy Creative Writing class of mainly eager, mature kids; the next year that same course had a crabby mix of mainly resistant and hesitant kids. Needless to say, the former class made more progress.
We talk about teaching as though it were a series of actions by one person, but teaching, I think as I watch these classes, occurs between people; it’s a co-creation of everyone in the room. Like any creative act, it requires trust, faith and willingness to listen. Can we measure that? How can we describe something that’s always changing and can’t even be seen?