How Do You Build Trust?

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Ernest Hemingway is said to have remarked that “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Enigmatic, for sure. But also probably pretty good advice. I’ve been thinking about trust a lot lately, since it seems to be in very short supply. Who can you trust? According to pundits, everyday citizens, and lots of students I talk to, the answer is discouraging. Can’t trust the media. Can’t trust the government. Can’t trust politicians. Can’t trust . . . just about any institution or group. The failure of trust is no doubt related to the rise of tribalism, in-groups, be-and-think-just-like-me “friends.”


Pretty depressing. Yet I also sense a longing for trust—for true confidence in someone or something (or both). This summer as I was talking with students in several settings, I asked them about trust and who they trusted. Most mentioned a family member or friend first, but when it came to second or third on the list, the name of a teacher came up a number of times. In a couple of instances, students said they trusted a teacher because “he’s always honest with me,” and because “she always follows through; if she says she will do something, she always does it. I like that.”


The last couple of weeks I’ve written about teachers who seemed to me to be trusted by students—even those who didn’t always agree with them—and who reciprocated that trust. (Click here or here to read those posts.) I’ve been thinking about how trust arises in a classroom setting, how it can grow from small seeds. So being honest with students and always telling the truth seems like a good way to begin. But right behind that is the kind of reliability and consistency that the student above mentions regarding “follow through.” I don’t think this kind of consistency is what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In other words, this kind of (non-foolish) reliability or consistency doesn’t obviate spontaneity. Rather, by helping to establish a trusting environment, it makes room for spontaneity.


And what else? I’d say giving everyone a fair hearing, listening hard, being able to admit it if you don’t know something, taking time to explain and explain again, and demonstrating care even while holding to a high standard—these are the building blocks of trust. Not rocket science, but hard nonetheless. And time consuming: Teachers instinctively know that this kind of trust isn’t generated in a day but only through persistence and through classroom talk—open and caring talk.


That can be hard to come by in these cynical and often hateful times. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. And our students are hungry for such trust, for the safety that it engenders, for a place they can be fully themselves and fully open to learning.


Do you have ways you build trust in your classroom? Do your students have insights into what such trust means to them? If so, I would love for you to join me in a guest blog post. Please do!


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3470201 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.