The current public discussion about education reveals our fundamental lack of trust in teachers and our inability to describe “good” teaching. There are several consequences to these gaps. First, as we have seen in recent battles over teachers’ pay and benefits, teachers are frequently portrayed as either demons (i.e., incompetent, overpaid, and lazy) or saints (i.e., beyond reproach or critique.) The truth lies somewhere in between these labels. Of course, as in every profession, there are incompetent teachers who simply clock in. But there are also countless talented and committed teachers whose work with children is breathtaking. And then there are the many teachers whose teaching falls somewhere in between. The problem is that when this complex reality is painted in a uniformly bad light, the default response is to stop trusting teachers altogether.
Teaching was once one of the most trusted professions; along with doctors, we trusted teachers. With the recent focus on curricula that teach via with scripts that teachers are mandated to read, snapping their fingers at the appropriate places, we have all but eliminated our trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In this context, meaningful teaching is too often replaced by teaching for the tests and deep learning by training in efficient selection of multiple-choice responses.
But there are other stances to take toward teachers. In the summer of 2005, after the South Asian tsunami, I traveled to Aceh, Indonesia with a group of teacher educators to work with the new teachers who were hired as a result of this large scale disaster and to improve teaching across the district. This work continued over four summers. More recently, we continued this project, called “Listening Schools,” with teachers working with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The foundation of our work to improve teaching was trust.
We began with respect for the knowledge teachers brought to their work – knowledge of their students, their classrooms, their schools, and their content. Although we provided new materials and pedagogical methods, our emphasis was not on demonstrating how to teach, but rather on giving teachers tools for sharing their knowledge with each other. We learned that teachers trusted us when we introduced new approaches and knowledge because we began by conveying our respect for their knowledge rather than critiquing their practices. Similarly, good teaching begins by acknowledging the knowledge children bring to the classroom, using their understanding of the world around them as a starting point for learning. Likewise, we began our work with teachers with the assumption that they had a foundational knowledge of their local context and that our work was to teach them new ways to work with and learn from each other, so as to expand that knowledge.
As I have read newspapers and on-line commentary in recent weeks, I have been struck by the lack of trust in teachers at this moment in our history. One article suggested that we place webcams – like nanny cams – in classrooms to watch teachers more closely. Along with other public sector employees, teachers have become a convenient target of taxpayer rage, our demons. As with their congressional representatives, people trust their own children’s teachers, and save their ire for teachers in general. Where did this mistrust come from?
Trust is closely connected to respect and integrity. Trusting one another requires that we place ourselves in a vulnerable position and take risks, knowing that others will support us. Trust is also connected to careful listening and paying enough attention to another to know how and when to respond. That’s also what characterizes strong teaching.
In Aceh and Lebanon, we learned to build trust with the teachers before we began our work together. We talked explicitly about the importance of trust, of their trusting one another, themselves, and our work together. Most of all we listened to them and asked them to listen to each other. We trusted the teachers to know how translate their experiences and the teaching practices we introduced into their own contexts. Beginning with this respect, with deep listening and trust, we worked across cultural and linguistic boundaries to forge new ways to work together and new processes for collaboration.
The results were striking. Teachers were willing to take new risks to try different ways of teaching, opening themselves up to learn from one another. They also engaged in difficult conversations about the challenges they faced in their classrooms. These interactions and discussions are rare in today’s classrooms where teachers often close their doors to their supervisors and colleagues, out of fear that if they admit to any worries or weaknesses, they will lose their job, rather than get help in solving problems.
This distrust is paralyzing. Our challenge is to change the discourse about teachers, replacing distrust with trust, allowing us to understand the complexity of teaching and learning. Only then will we see deep engaged teaching and successful learning in our country’s classrooms.