Elena Aguilar, an instructional coach and author of several books, gives workshops for educators.  Her new online course about building trust in coaching relationships contains many principles that apply to teacher and student interactions as well. 

Many challenges need to be navigated when building trusting relationships. One of the stances Elena takes that helps her build trust is to simply be curious about the educator with which she is meeting. She asks questions to get to know them and how they approach their students.  

Teachers who are curious about their students build relationships that help nudge them further along as learners when they face challenges. When they seem to have stalled or hit a wall, questions can help. Is there something that’s frustrating you? I’d like to help. What aspect of my class seems to be the most difficult?

Elena communicates clearly that she cares about the teacher she’s working with and that she’s there for them. Truly trusting relationships are free from fear.  When people are frightened, intellectual parts of the brain cease to work. The intention has to be to hold a space that facilitates the other’s growth.

If teachers are too harsh, the learning space in the classroom can become too constricted. If they are too loose about rule enforcement, students can get out of control quickly. The balance between these two has to be just right for student growth. When teachers want students to attempt rigor, they have to feel safe enough to risk getting it wrong. Many fear looking dumb in front of their peers.  

Boundaries are critical when building trusting relationships. Teachers need to share a little about themselves so that students can connect. Curious students often ask specific questions so boundaries can be maintained with careful and thoughtful responses. 

Keeping good boundaries around emotional states also enhances the safety students feel in a classroom. Children test limits. The teacher’s communication style sets the tone for the room so Aguilar suggests they monitor closely their tendency for responding with annoyance. 

When teachers offer transparency about who they are and what they expect, students find that comforting. Clarify expectations help students deliver the desired outcomes. When they fall short of what’s expected, plan the interaction that’s needed to remind them of their responsibilities.

Before meeting with such a student, internally seek a place where he can be held in tremendous positive regard. This may require peeling away layers of agitation, but will truly benefit the communication. Motivating resistant learners is one the more frustrating parts of a teacher’s job. 

When approaching students with unconditional positive regard about what they’re capable of accomplishing, it bolsters their willingness to effort more. Validating their efforts helps students stand in their greatness.

Notice when students have managed to take even a small step in the right direction. Complimenting that growth can fuel the next step. Invite them to point out the areas they’ve improved in so that the small successes can be celebrated to bolster their success. 

When confronting underperforming students about their lack of effort or responsibility, teachers should carefully monitor their own emotional boundaries and tone of voice. Compassionately hold students accountable with questions like: What was due today? Did you follow through and deliver? How might you handle this better in the future?

This is easier when a trusting relationship is built. Asking questions about their life outside of school and then listening intently and skillfully helps.  Explore areas they offer up with curiosity being careful not to assume to know the solution they need even if it appears obvious. Knowing what’s driving their action or in action can help determine the teacher’s next move.  

Teachers who help students self-identify strengths and weaknesses can become a trusted ally. Help them look for positive evidence and build on areas where they’re experiencing success. Remind them not to fret over things that they don’t have control over, because it causes them to lose energy. Instead help them refocus on what they can control.  

When coaching, Elena asks teachers about what would make them feel more effective or more joyful in the classroom. She asks them to identify the bright spots in their day. Then they discuss ways to use those areas to build confidence for tackling the places that need strengthening. 

Teachers who grow their capabilities and strive for excellence regularly seek out feedback. When they try a new strategy and invite a coach in to give feedback, they become role models for risking. 

When struggling students can’t seem to focus and are disruptive, invite them to risk.  Choose how to respond to the challenges they present by building a trusting relationship.


Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at educationallyspeaking@gmail.com.

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