Christine Everson, a student of Professors Nolet and Romano, at Western Washington University's Woodring School of Education, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, "Know Yourself, Change Your World" by Parker Palmer.
Prompt: Palmer cites a study that found relational trust was the one variable, not money, models of governance, state-of-the-art curriculum, in-service training or technology—that made a difference in improving kids' learning. What do you think goes into relational trust between teacher and student? Teacher and teacher?
Read author Parker Palmer's response to Christine Everson's essay here.
Read classmate Chris Claudillo's response to the same article here.
I Was Scared
By Christine Everson
Sophomore English was my second class of the day, but I knew that if I did not see Mr. Powell before school started I would be overwhelmed with guilt for all of first period. Nervously, I entered his classroom and began preparing myself to tell him how I was unable to finish the assigned reading of A Tale of Two Cities the night before. He welcomed me with his always enthusiastic, “Good morning, Christine”, and I burst into tears. I began to tell him about the dizzy spell I had the night before and how I had been unable to read the assigned material because the words were too blurry to make any sense. Looking back, I know that I was experiencing a wide range of emotions, such as frustration, fear, and helplessness; but at the time my overwhelming thought was that I had let my favorite teacher down.
Mr. Powell was aware of what my last few months had entailed. My mother made sure to email him if I had to miss class to go to the hospital for all day blood tests or if I had collapsed the night before. It was no secret to anyone that I was not doing well–and if it were, the heart rate monitor on my right hip cleared up any doubt. Regardless of circumstances, this was the first day I had ever showed up to school unprepared. I felt like a failure. But Mr. Powell was clear and direct as he looked me in the eye and assured me that it was okay. In fact, he encouraged me to read the Cliffs Notes for now and then read the book when I was older (the implication being when I was healthy again).
What still strikes me about this interaction is that Mr. Powell gave me the grace that I refused to give myself. The concept of it “being okay” that I was unprepared was foreign to me and felt vile. Sixteen-year-olds have an eerie sense of immortality and the sheer fact that I had become physically incapable of reading a book was a terrifying thought. Mr. Powell entered into this with me and advocated that it may be necessary to revise the expectations I had set for myself.
When I think of trust between a student and a teacher I cannot help but think about that morning. It was one of those “teachable moments,” those lessons that you will not find in any curriculum. The acknowledgment that there was something outside of the classroom, and in this case, more important than the classroom, was vital to me accepting my current health status and finding an ally in that situation. Yes I was his English student, but I was also a scared girl who needed a confidant much more than she needed to know about Dickens’ depiction of the French peasantry.
I have had three heart surgeries since high school, and with each one I gain new perspective on what an important role Mr. Powell has played in my life. I am still a mathematics nerd; he did not change that (though I would be lying if I said he did not try). But because of him I understand a deeper truth about education and what it means to educate a person.
Now that I have an internal defibrillator my friends often refer to me as, “Christine the machine.” And though a machine does beat my heart, my mind cannot be programmed. People are not programmable, because, well, they are human. Flawed, hurt, broken, beautiful humans. Ignoring this truth is ignoring the essence of who your students are and the experiences they bring into the classroom. Relational trust is, by definition, built on relationships. It speaks to the human desire to know others and to be known ourselves. It is never going to fit neatly into a lesson plan but without acknowledging who we are teaching, the question must be raised, what are we teaching?
Christine Everson is currently pursuing her Master in Teaching degree at Western Washington University and is a graduate of Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. She loves Sudoku number puzzles, consistently confuses television sitcoms with everyday life, and is notorious for always carrying fruit snacks in her purse.
When Sharon Palmer, my wife, edits my writing, she asks three questions: Is this worth saying? Is it said clearly? Is it said beautifully? I rarely pass all three of those tests until the tenth or twelfth draft, and then only in part! I don’t know how many times Chris Caudillo and Christine Everson drafted their essays, but both of them pass all three of Sharon’s tests with flying colors.
Both essays focus on the critical role of “relational trust” in teaching and learning, arguing that the best teachers have not only knowledge and skill but also the “heart” to connect with their students, which is critical to student learning. Both alert us to the challenge of trust-building amid the complexities that students bring to class every day, complexities hidden behind the masks that young people (like all the rest of us) often feel compelled to wear.
Chris Caudillo reminds us that if students are to learn, a teacher must make her voice heard among the multitude of external voices that clamor for students’ attention—a goal that is reached not by shouting but by building trust. Christine Everson reminds us that young people often come to class agitated by inner voices of fear and self-judgment—a tumult that must be stilled if learning is to occur, another pedagogical task that requires a teacher to earn students’ trust.
As these two teacher candidates know, relational trust in the classroom goes far beyond “being nice.” Healthy human development involves growing beyond the infant stage—where you have no choice but to trust adults—toward individuation, which means in part learning to be discriminating about whom you trust. As researchers have shown, if the adults called teachers cannot bridge this developmental trust gap, real learning is not likely to occur.
In an article called “Trusting What You Know: Negotiating the Relational Context of Classroom Life,” Miriam B. Raider-Roth says, ”Based on an in-depth study with sixth-grade students, this research demonstrates that students’ construction of trustworthy knowledge in school depends heavily on the quality of their relationships with teachers and peers.“ (Teachers College Record, Vol. 107, No. 4, April 2005, pp. 587–628.)
Education is a field that tends to be obsessed with “tips, tricks and techniques” to help teachers get through the day. So it is a source of hope to read these essays by two teacher candidates whose professors have asked them to probe the depths of the teacher’s heart, which is where good teaching comes from. And the fact that people like Chris Caudillo and Christine Everson will soon be in the classroom, teaching our children, is something to gladden everyone’s heart.—Parker J. Palmer is author of The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal
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