Why aren’t we trusting our students more?

Before we engaged in this social experiment called Remote Teaching/Learning During a Pandemic, I like many other teachers had a syllabus that I only slightly tweaked over the years. I had deadlines and procedures for late work. I had “participation points” that counted towards the final grade. I had an attendance policy that I tried to adhere to, but my students rarely had an issue coming to class, so I rarely worried about it. Based on a foundation of trust and the Torres’ Rights of the Learner that we established/nurtured over the semester, I trusted that my students would engage in the complex ideas about teaching elementary math.

But the pandemic happened. I worried about how I would make the transition.

The transition to remote learning meant a lot of changes. Assumptions about what teaching/learning turned upside down. It turns out my normal plate of Humble Pie turned into a six course meal of Humble Pies.

Because I had such amazing and supportive colleagues, I learned how to create a set of Google Slides that communicate information much more effectively and encourages students to work in small groups and record their thinking. I learned made a Bitmoji classroom and how to hyperlink everything under the sun so that it’s more easily accessed. I learned how to make quick YouTube videos of information I might just normally say to students; this has streamlined the Zoom time with my students so they don’t stay on for three hours at a time.

But I had to relearn what it meant to trust my students and build rapport with them.

Since March, I let go a lot of my requirements in the syllabus. I take attendance, but only as a means of recognizing when my students (who are teacher candidates in an elementary education program) are not able to make our Zoom meetings, this is a red flag that I need to check in with them and see how they are doing. I don’t require that students keep their cameras or mics on for the duration of our class. I use wait time for students to contribute, but I don’t demand vocalization. Students can write in the chat and/or write on my editable Google Slide deck.

For the final assignment, my teachers are recording a short Mock Parent Teacher Conference based on their experience with a child over Zoom (the program is called “SEE Math: Support and Enrichment Experiences in Math” as a part of their elementary methods course and field experience). I am spending today grading the rest of them and it finally hit me. I haven’t seen the faces or heard the voice of the majority of my students this semester.

I felt like I was meeting some them for the first time: a name and email finally married with a voice and a face.

I knew that it was a big leap of faith to not require students to have their cameras/mics on during class. Many times I felt like I was talking into a void of black screens with their names in uniform font across my desktop. I knew my students were there. I knew they were listening and engaging with me and each other because I could see my Google Slide deck and Jamboard fill up with comments and mathematical thinking. It just wasn’t the typical interaction I might see in a physical classroom.

I had to “trust in my trust.”

Because in this pandemic, a “trust in my trust” is all I really had left. I had to know that my nearly 20 years of teaching experience and intuition would guide me along a path that would support my students as they learned to teach math remotely. I had to trust in my belief that I was maintaining a safe/brave space for my students to learn, engage, and critique traditional mathematical teaching. I had to “trust in my trust” of students and their potential to do and create great things. If I lost a trust in myself and of the trust I had with my students, what was there left to do but replicate old practices that might not have been good ones after all?

The majority of my students opted to pre-record their Conferences and not conduct them live on Zoom, which were the two options. Normally I would be sitting for 10 hours straight in an office bearing witness to their wonderful work. My eyes and brain would be foggy with the intense concentration they needed to get quality feedback from me as their mentor. But the pre-recorded nature of the conferences has helped me to pause and take in their amazing progress without feeling rushed with time deadlines.

I wasn’t sure how the pre-recorded conferences would look like. I gave them guidelines, but not stylistic ones (whether or not to create a Google Slide Deck, insert a bitmoji, add charts that give a snapshot of the child’s thinking, etc). Outside of the three talking points (children’s funds of knowledge, noticing children’s mathematical thinking, and next steps) the rest was up to them to decide and plan.

I had to “trust in my trust” of my students.

Now as I spend my Saturday listening to their Mock Conferences, I have to pause. I had to pause to let my admiration of my students and their work settle in the deepest part of my heart. Our students are not your traditional college students. Some are parents. Many work full/part time jobs to pay for school (some of whom were laid off because they work in the service industry). Some of them are taking care of siblings and/or elders. More than half are first-gen like myself and didn’t have a parent show me the ropes of going to college. And in THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC they created the most beautiful representations of their labor/learning this semester.

Because the majority of their work on this conference was done asynchronously, I had to “trust in my trust” of what students could accomplish based on what they learned and thought about in my class. They emailed questions and I promptly helped. Their Mock Conference recordings showed how they bring the humanity back to teaching (… remotely…. during a pandemic). The passion in their voices as they spoke about children and their assets. Reframed “mistakes or missteps” as insights into the child’s thinking. They showed a trust in children and their potential to learn.

By maintaining my trust of our teacher candidates, they in turn trusted in their own talents as future teachers, held firm to their passion for the profession, and created a trusting environment for their SEE Math child to engage with them on complex ideas.

What would this semester have looked like if I had required them to turn on their cameras? If I held firm to ALL of my deadlines in the syllabus and didn’t create any space for them to turn it in week later? If I required students to share with me their Mock Conference materials before they recorded their videos? If I kept a strict track of attendance and times students were late to the Zoom meetings (which meant I would hold firm to my attendance policy)? It’s one answer:

There would be no trust. Only a replication of archaic punitive measures meant to regulate what learners say and do. Only those behaviors that met my expectations would be valued. #Nope

So I ask us as teachers, why aren’t we putting more trust in our students? Why are some of us reluctant to let go of our expectations about what “monitoring student progress” looks/sounds like? Why can’t we create safe/brave spaces for students to learn WITHOUT always demanding the same behaviors (e.g., cameras and mics on, 1-2-3 Eyes on Me, etc.) Why aren’t we all creating a foundation of trust in our students from Day 1 and maintain this over the course of our practice? What tragic loss of control are we so desperately afraid of when we hold fast to our syllabus (attendance/participation policies)? When we begin with trust in and with our students, then hopefully they’ll let us know when they are struggling so we can step in and help.

So my question stands: why aren’t we trusting our students more? What’s holding us back?

(Hoping that a book chapter proposal I am co-writing with Drs. Jennifer Eli Wolfe and Naomi Jessup is accepted because it follows a similar line of thought. We need to have more of these conversations).