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January 3, 2020

Pragmatism and Planning: Building Trust with Students

Amber discusses  how a pragmatic approach overshadows the use of serial optimism in certain situations when it comes to building trust with students.


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Building Trust with Students: Optimism Isn't A One Size Fits All Solution

I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve been called Suzy Sunshine, Pollyanna and worse; yet I’m inexplicably drawn to students who are the exact opposite. They frequently don’t see the silver lining but live within or beneath the rain cloud, most for very good reason. This school year, I began a Tier 3 intervention pilot program for ninth-graders whose outlook is frequently shaded by disillusionment or disappointment, students who have the academic capabilities but need a variety of social and emotional supports to be successful. The program is called REACH, and the paradigm we are working within recognizes that not everyone has an easy path where everything comes up roses. Here’s a video overview where my students explain what REACH means to them. As you might have guessed, some of the tried-and-true activities that I’ve done year after year aren’t going to light their world on fire. Whatever the REACH students are learning from me and our team of teachers doesn’t compare to what I’m learning from them, and it has been the greatest honor to work with these students.

As we look to a new year, I have considered the activities that worked well in the past like the One Word Challenge (One Word lesson here and Share My Lesson blog here and MiddleWeb blog here) or Six Word Memoir (Share My Lesson blog and resources here). However, these activities require a strong assumption that goal setting works and best-laid plans will succeed. These activities also assume strong internal motivation and a healthy sense of self. The students I work with will be glad to tell you that their biggest hurdle lies with internal motivation and lack of confidence. The “system” doesn’t always work, and they will call any bluff that promises otherwise. It isn’t that my students aren’t capable of meeting goals; rather, their circumstances make it a luxury to plan for a future because their day-to-day survival isn’t easy. 

Building trust with students: Amber in class with her students.
Amber catching her students for a candid photo.

Building Trust with Students: Understanding the Effects of Identity

Now, a few months into this new endeavor, I have a much better understanding of what will “hit different” with my kiddos. They loved The Hate U Give (I used these Share My Lesson resources) for its relevance and were so angered when they learned about Eric Garner that they weren’t sure how to channel it, but this collection was helpful. They tolerated Romeo and Juliet pretty well, and the reason was clear in our Socratic Seminar: fate. In all of our reading this year, we’ve focused on the essential question (though I certainly didn’t call it that!): Where does your identity come from? Each discussion keeps circling back to the idea that we are a messy mixture of where we are from, how we see ourselves, and the fearful where we are heading. As the new year arrives, we need to meet that last part head-on!

The future is downright scary when our circumstances aren’t secure. We’ve spent lots of time this year contemplating what is in our control—like our attitude and effort level versus what is not, like our economic status, physical limitations or personal history. These conversations have been, for all of us, but perhaps mostly to me, life-changing. So, as I’ve been thinking about how to frame goal setting, I’ve struggled. However, I believe so much in being intentional about what matters most that I’ve refused to give up this cornerstone of my own beliefs. 

Luckily, through many hours of culling the internet for the perfect video, I landed upon Tim Ferris’ Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals. Instead of my typical unicorns and rainbows approach, which I still love, I believe I’ve found a message that will resonate with my students because it is a little more gargoyles and storm clouds. Instead of setting goals that depend on their actions, they will be creating a plan that delves into what happens if they were to remain passive and inactive. In my own life, it “gets real” quickly when I start asking, “What will happen if I don’t save more money?” or “What will happen if I don’t lose a few pounds?” Instead of the goal to “save money” and “lose weight,” I am forced to see the results of not taking action. In some ways, this approach feels very “tough love,” but in other ways, I think my students will respect the truth of the matter: Inaction leads to repetition, and most of them want a different life than they are leading. 

Because this program is a new endeavor, I haven’t been writing about my experiences with these kiddos. However, they recently asked me why I haven’t been sharing in my blogs and writing about them. I explained that I wanted them to trust me before I started sharing their stories, and I’ve been given the “go ahead!” This is the first in a series of pieces I’ll be sharing about our journey together. Stay tuned, and let us know what you think. 

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification.

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