Making the Desert Bloom

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 10 2012

Working in a Low-Trust Environment

I have been fortunate throughout most of my life to live and work in high-trust environments. I went to a high school where everyone routinely left their backpacks outside of their lockers and hardly anything happened to the backpacks. At college, I once left a window fan in the campus center for 11 days and no one took it. I am not going to be naive and say that there were no thefts in these settings, but they were very limited. Everyone generally trusted one another, which improved the quality of life for me in high school and college. My students clearly did not grow up in this type of environment since their homes and communities were hardly trustworthy places.

This summer at Institute, I taught in Watts, which is traditionally thought to be a low-trust environment. However, since it was summer school and TFA controlled many of the school’s variables, I didn’t really experience what happens when there is no trust in the classroom. At 100 Academy, this difference hit me on the first day. Students would pack up the entire contents of their desks into their backpacks, because they were afraid of thefts. As the first week went along, I started seeing pencils and erasers disappear. Occasionally, they would be found, but I didn’t think too much of it. But an incident this week changed my perception towards trust in the classroom.

My cell phone policy is that I will give students one warning when I see their phone out in class. At the second time, I will take their phone for the day. One student had his phone out for a second time in a week, so on Thursday afternoon, I took his phone. Naively, I put the cell phone on my desk and thought nothing about it. An hour later, we were packing up to go, and suddenly I couldn’t find the phone. I started freaking out. I had to get my students outside in less than 5 minutes, and I had to find the phone. Therefore, I told my students to go outside, but they couldn’t leave the line until I searched their backpacks and pockets as a compromise. As expected, I did not find the phone by the end of the school day since I had let the students leave the room.

I went back inside and searched my room to no avail. Then, I had to make the dreaded call to the mother informing her that I had lost her student’s phone. I got a hold of the mother, and she was shocked when I told her that her son had a phone. It turns out that he had taken her old phone (without a SIM card, so it was really just a Game Boy) without permission. Therefore, she wasn’t even mad at me, but rather she was mad at her son. The next day the boy claimed that he had taken the phone so his cousin couldn’t get it, but that excuse did nothing for me. At the end of the day, I got lucky. In the frantic mess to search everyone, one of the students dropped the phone in the grass. Another teacher found it, and all was ok. For the rest of Friday, I kept the phone in my pocket to ensure that there would not be another theft.

This incident goes along with another theme that I have heard had from several parents at school. They believe that their kids are solely in school to receive an education and not to make friends. I was disturbed to hear this information. While I was encouraged to hear their support for their child’s education, school should also be a safe place to make friends. However, these parents were so concerned that the other kids would end up in troubling situations that they wanted to eliminate any social aspects of school. Here’s another risk of being in a low-trust environment. Students aren’t going to thrive when they cannot trust the other students to even be their friends. Students don’t just succeed by themselves. They need the peer support. They need to be able to trust others.

Three weeks into the school year, I am still working to build up trust in my classroom. My students still don’t completely trust me, but I already see signs of that changing on a daily basis. But the students really need to become one community. There are going to be a number of group and class-wide activities in the next two weeks aimed at building up a stronger classroom culture. At first, I did not include trust as one of my big values and expectations for the school, but after seeing the results of the past few weeks, I am making these changes starting tomorrow. Hopefully, this culture of trust that doesn’t exist in the world around my students will become a reality in my classroom. If it doesn’t, then I am not sure that I can have a successful first year in the classroom.

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