How to Move from Disrespect to a More Trusting Classroom Culture

I frequently preach about the trust and creativity connection, especially when you’re teaching improvisation. But if you search around for how to teach improvisation, you’ll wade through tons of information about pedagogy, technique, and methods. Honestly, it’s overwhelming how much is out there on this topic. But I’ve found in my years teaching and managing music programs (including jazz education) that the methodology of improvisation is only half the battle. The other half is mental, emotional, and social. Trust is required for incredible creative outcomes. 

When I get questions about trust in the classroom, it’s actually often a question about respect. Maybe a coworker or student did something to the teacher that they interpreted as disrespectful, and I get the question: “How can I build trust after disrespect has damaged our relationship?”

Let’s start with clearing up a few things first:

What is trust?

Trust is about risk. When you trust another person, you are handing them something important to you (literally or figuratively), and you don’t know for sure what they are going to do with it. There is a suspension of disbelief. What constitutes trust varies among cultures, but in general, competency is key. If students don’t think you know what you’re doing, they won’t trust you. 

Trust is important in all relationships in and around your classroom: between you and your students, between each student, between you and your principal/supervisor, between you and your students’ families, etc. The more trusting these relationships are, the better outcomes you’ll have in your classroom– musical, social, and emotional!

How is respect different?

True respect is about admiration and honoring the worth of another person. In a mile-high view of the world, we can and should respect the inherent worth of every person as equals. But in the classroom (and many other places), power dynamics can make things more complicated. 

It is more culturally acceptable in some classrooms to always respect the authority of the teacher– no questioning allowed. But, compliance does not always mean that trust or respect exist in a relationship. I can spitefully comply with a teacher or principal in order to stay out of trouble, but that does not mean that I respect that person. Respect is not simply compliance or fear. 

Some people justify disrespectful behavior with the phrase “you have to earn my respect.” That phrase is often used when a person in power is displeased about someone being noncompliant, and then decides that that person is not worthy. In that situation, the “noncompliant” person might comply just to stay out of trouble, and no real relationship will be built. 

Like trust, a sense of respect or disrespect can come from intentional actions and decisions or unspoken cultural differences. The latter includes “courtesy, attitudes towards elders, nature of friendship, concepts of time, personal space between people, nonverbal communication, rules about eye contact, or appropriate touching.”* For example, being 2 minutes late to a meeting may seem disrespectful to one person, but not even register as an issue to another. 

So, trust and respect are similar, and often intertwined. But, trust is earned and respect is typically a given until proved otherwise.

Can I trust someone who has disrespected me?

Let me be very clear here: Abuse and bullying are not ok. You are under no obligation to be best friends with someone who is truly unkind and disrespectful to you, especially after you have made it clear that their behavior has been hurtful to you. Most of the advice below applies to minor infractions. For bigger issues, the priority should be getting that person out of your life.  

But for smaller issues, I believe the answer is usually still yes. You can still trust them because trust is a continuum. After being disrespected, you might trust this person a bit less, or only in certain contexts. But you don’t necessarily have to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Your relationship may change, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless.

How can I build trust and respect?

Trust and respect are both built with several, small, consistent actions. Grand gestures made in an effort to quickly bolster a relationship are often met with skepticism– so don’t think you can throw your choir a pizza party and they’ll forget how you bungled the a capella auditions. 

Setting and keeping boundaries is actually a part of being trustworthy. If you no longer want to discuss your personal life with a coworker because they gossiped to the rest of the faculty, then be firm about it. Stick to it. Show that when you say something, you mean it. That integrity builds trust and respect!

Remember that even when you feel as though a student has disrespected you, that does not lower their value or worth as a person. They also may not have intended to disrespect you. In the moment, avoid reacting quickly, and seek understanding. Grace is an incredible trust-builder. 

Accept responsibility and make amends whenever you have made a misstep. This is a big one, especially if the other person has hurt you before. Admit your fault, ask how you can make it right, and then follow through. Walk the walk!

*”Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond

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