Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust Students

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst 

Much has been written, including by me, about the importance of trust in academic leadership. For administrators to have any hope of being effective, they must gain faculty trust. The more I think about the issue of trust, however, the more I’m convinced that trust is equally important in teaching — in the relationship between professor and student.

After all, faculty members are certainly in positions of leadership in the college classroom. We just don’t usually think of ourselves in that way, because we see a difference betweeen the manager-employee dynamic and the teacher-student one. Students don’t literally work for us, and we don’t see ourselves as telling them what to do.

And yet, in a sense, students do work for us. Well, ideally, they work for themselves, but they generally do so in response to assignments we’ve given — which means we actually do tell them what to do. We set the agenda for the course, delineate expectations, design activities, and ultimately determine their fate. Meanwhile, students look to us for guidance, motivation, and affirmation.

As teachers, we are leaders, whether we want to admit it or not. Like any other leaders, we must work to establish trust with those we lead. Earning students’ trust requires us to do two things — be trustworthy ourselves and demonstrate that we trust them.

Getting them to trust you. The first one is relatively easy, involving things that most of us already do. Basically, if you want to be worthy of a student’s trust, you have to be honest, dependable, respectful, and fair. You must keep your word, be open about your intentions, follow through on your commitments, keep confidences whenever possible, eschew favoritism, and avoid seemingly arbitrary decisions.

What follows is a faculty code of conduct, of sorts — applicable whether you are early in your career or just in need of a wake-up call. This is a shortlist of 14 good behaviors that will help you gain your students’ trust:

  • Explain your expectations clearly on your syllabus — including your policies about grades, attendance, and so forth. Then stick to them.
  • Never make a change to your published syllabus or course schedule that affects students negatively. For instance, you can delete a reading or assignment but never add one. Push a test date back, but never move it up.
  • If you do need to make a change, make sure all students know about it, and explain your reasons.
  • Return students’ tests and other graded assignments within a reasonable amount of time. You can define "reasonable" on your syllabus, but once you’ve done so, stick to that definition without fail. For example, on my rhetoric-and-composition syllabus, I commit to return students’ graded essays within three class meetings — two if possible (and it usually is), but no more than three.
  • Keep your office hours listed on the syllabus (and on your door). If you know you’re not going to be there due to a conference, a meeting, or a doctor’s appointment, inform students in advance. If you have to miss office hours unexpectedly, leave a note on your door.
  • Follow all institutional guidelines regarding student privacy (like FERPA), but go beyond that. Some students may see you as a confidant, counselor, and friend. Do your best to keep their confidences. And if you can’t, as in cases of sexual assault or suicidal thoughts, be open about the fact that you have to share that information, why, and with whom.
  • Do your best to avoid the appearance of favoritism in class. That can be difficult since some students talk more than others and some are friendlier and more personable than others. (And some, let’s not forget, are better at schmoozing than others.) But there are ways to be evenhanded in managing classroom discussions and other interactions. Self-awareness is key: Recognize your all-too-human tendency to favor certain students and strive to overcome those natural biases.
  • Always try to stay on an even keel in the classroom, regardless of what may be going on in your personal or professional life outside of it. We tend not to trust people whose moods swing so wildly and frequently that we never know what to expect.
  • Never use the classroom to air personal grievances with the administration, colleagues, editors, the system, your partner, or the Atlanta Falcons, who failed to make the playoffs once again. But I digress.
  • Generally keep your political opinions to yourself. When you do share them, perhaps because they are relevant to the discussion, make sure students understand that you are open to other ideas and will not penalize them because they don’t share your views.
  • Never institute a policy that punishes the entire class for the actions of a few.
  • Never be disrespectful or demeaning toward students — either individually or as a group, in class or outside it. Resist the urge to trash talk students in conversations with colleagues. Students often hear about it, and they will never trust someone who badmouths them behind their backs.
  • Don’t act like your course is the only one students are taking. Recognize and allow for the fact that they often have competing priorities.
  • Don’t assign an expensive textbook and then barely use it. (This from my son, the college senior: "The more expensive the textbook, the more I expect the instructor to use it and the more I expect to be tested over it. If you tell me I need an expensive textbook to do well in the course, I’ll buy it, but you darn well better use it.")

Maybe you’re already doing most of those things. But if you’re not, or if you haven’t been quite as diligent as you could be (and we’re all occasionally guilty of that), this is an opportunity to make any necessary adjustments and earn their trust.

Getting you to trust them. The other side of the equation — trusting students — can be much more problematic.

Sometimes it seems as though students and teachers are natural adversaries: Many students seem convinced that instructors are out to make their lives more difficult, while faculty members all too often view students as lazy, entitled, and hell-bent on cheating, given the slightest opportunity.

Certainly some faculty members do enjoy their "tough" reputation a little too much. Likewise, some students are lazy and entitled. Some do cheat, and others might in a pinch. The question is what to do about it. Too often, our default response is reactionary: We establish stricter rules, tighter controls, more supervision, greater scrutiny. In other words, we trust our students less.

You might be thinking: "Well that’s partly the students’ fault. They’re not behaving in a trustworthy manner, so naturally we don’t trust them!" However, through my study of leadership theory, and in practice as an administrator for 20 years, I have learned that the way we treat people has a significant influence on their behavior. When people feel trusted, they generally try to live up to that trust.

That’s not a magic formula, and it certainly doesn’t work with everyone. Some people will never be trustworthy, no matter what you do. A few will actively abuse your trust. But that’s a chance you have to take because the majority will respond favorably. I have certainly found that to be true of faculty and staff members. And since I started allowing myself to trust students more, I’ve found that it’s true of them, too.

Several years ago, I began to rethink my approach to teaching. I set aside my suspicions and decided to start from the assumption that most students are trustworthy. I know what some of you are thinking: "He’s like one of those people who hike in a grizzly bear-infested area, confident they won’t get eaten — and then get eaten."

But I’m not naïve. I know some students will try to take advantage of my trusting nature. I just believe that most won’t. And I refuse to penalize the majority for the attitudes and actions of a relatively small minority.

Too often in the classroom, we demand to be trusted without extending the same courtesy to students. But the opportunities to trust students abound:

  • When you liberalize your attendance policies and make deadlines more fluid, you show that you trust them to make good decisions.
  • When you eschew restrictive classroom rules, emphasizing respect for others over lists of dos and don’ts, you show that you trust them to behave like adults.
  • When you focus more on teaching than on policing plagiarism, you show that you trust their integrity.
  • When you give them more options on assignments, putting them in control of their own learning, you show that you trust their judgment and intelligence.

All of that is necessary to their development as adults. I hear some colleagues argue that we must be very strict with students because "that’s how the real world works." I would counter that students, once they leave us, will have many opportunities in "the real world" to shirk, lie, and cheat with impunity. We won’t be there to monitor them, nor in many cases will anyone else — except themselves.

One of the best things you can do for students, in terms of their maturation, is to put them in situations where they have the opportunity to make the right decision — not because they fear punishment but because it’s the right thing to do. That requires a great deal of trust on your part.

Pair your trust with accountability. Students can choose to miss class — but if they make that choice too many times, they will probably fail the test. They can turn in their essay the day after it’s due — but they’ll have to wait until I’ve graded all the on-time essays before they get theirs back. They can look at Instagram during class, as long as they don’t distract anyone else — but they’ll miss my instructions and probably not do well on the assignment.

Allowing students to make choices about how they comport themselves in class — and face the natural consequences — is the essence of trust.

I have found, though, that the more I trust students, the better their decisions tend to be. These days, I rarely have serious problems with attendance, late work, or classroom decorum. And students seem to appreciate the vote of confidence. Last spring, toward the end of the semester, one of my students asked, "You know what I like about you, Professor Jenkins?"

"No, what?" I answered warily, half-expecting a punchline.

"The way you trust us," he said.

That may be the best compliment I’ve ever received.

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