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
On the bridge of a starship, the captain begins her log entry as her crew checks routine readouts. “Captain’s log, stardate 8130.3…” Little beeps and boops from the computers around the bridge are heard in the background. The helmsman adjusts course to avoid the Klingon neutral zone at his captain’s orders. “Aye, sir.” The captain swings around, and we see… holy crap, is that Kirstie Alley? She’s so young! And she’s a Vulcan?
Yes, Kirstie Alley’s big break was as a Vulcan Starfleet cadet in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” And yes, this post is about Star Trek, but only to show how some 23rd century thinking applies to arts classrooms. Let’s go where no arts educators have gone before! (I had to).
Back to the bridge, which is actually a training simulation at Starfleet Academy, the gentle humming of the starship is interrupted by a distress call from a freighter, the Kobayashi Maru. They have hit a mine and are losing power and life support. “Can you assist, Enterprise?!” The captain of the Kobayashi Maru verifies their coordinates– inside the Klingon neutral zone, AKA not a safe place to go– and the Enterprise’s computer verifies that they have 300 crewmembers aboard.
“Damn…” Kirstie Alley, I mean Captain Saavik, says to herself. She knows she has a responsibility to save this disabled ship, but can she avoid or survive a Klingon attack to protect her own crew? She orders the helmsman to change course to intercept the Kobayashi Maru, even though entering the neutral zone will certainly invite fire from Klingon warships. First officer Spock reminds her: “We are now in violation of treaty, Captain.”
As soon as she orders the transporter room to standby to beam over survivors, three Klingon cruisers appear. They will not accept messages relaying the Enterprise’s rescue mission. They fire on the Enterprise. With each torpedo blast, another beloved member of the Enterprise crew dramatically flings themselves to the floor as their consoles inexplicably explode in front of them– Sulu, Uhura, Dr. McCoy, Spock! Saavik looks around in a panic as her crew appears to die around her. As she calls for all hands to abandon ship amongst alarm bells, a familiar voice calls, “Alright, open her up!” And the false wall of the training simulation opens to reveal… Admiral Kirk.
Saavik has failed the Kobayashi Maru test, as every single Starfleet cadet before her has. Except for Kirk. Way back when Kirk was a cadet at Starfleet Academy, the Kobayashi Maru test was created to assess a cadet’s ability to face a no-win scenario, something that wasn’t unlikely when flying around space faster than lightspeed to unknown corners of various galaxies. Spock said that the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test was to “experience fear; fear in the face of certain death, to accept that fear and maintain control of one’s self and one’s crew.” (Star Trek 2009). But Kirk doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, he says heroically. So, after failing the test twice, Cadet Kirk came up with his own solution.
In this clip, from Star Trek 2009, an extremely smug Cadet Kirk has reprogrammed the simulation so that the Klingon warships drop their shields, allowing him to take out the attacking ships quickly and rescue everyone on the Kobayashi Maru. All of his instructors and classmates are stunned. Cue the “pew pew” finger guns and he’s sent off for a disciplinary hearing.
Kirk’s solution to this test has been the subject of many debates about problem solving, ethical leadership, and (my subject today) non-linear thinking. There are plenty of similar ways to describe these two ways of thinking: left- or right-brained, “Conscientious/Compliance” vs “Influence”, Ravenclaw vs. Gryffindor. None of these opposing types are inherently better than their counterparts. In fact, the true power of understanding your own way of thinking, and your students’ ways of thinking, is in being able to harness the strengths of both types of thinking.
Before I get into how to care for and challenge your different types of thinkers, a word of warning: categorizing your students into buckets should be done with the utmost care. A person’s style of thinking can be fluid. Some students may think more linearly in one subject, but be fully capable of non-linear thinking when it suits them better, and vice versa. It’s also tempting to assign the “good, smart” kids as linear thinkers and “bad, struggling” kids as non-linear thinkers. Highly linear thinkers may also be messy and careless. Non-linear thinkers can be (and frequently are) exceptionally bright and attentive. It’s not as simple as this or that, and no one benefits from stereotyping.
Also, be mindful and self-critical when considering your students of color. If you try to determine the thinking styles of the students in your learning space, and the groups are divided along racial lines, try a little harder. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself how you can know your students as they are, not as you assume them to be. When you do that work, you might discover new ways to engage students you had previously found confusing. Read on to learn how to spot linear and non-linear thinkers.
Care and Feeding of Linear Thinkers
Linear thinkers may grasp concrete, logical concepts (x, therefore y) quickly, but struggle with free-form or more abstract ideas (improvisational, quick thinking). They can be inflexible once they have come to a decision, and are often risk-averse. They will follow directions to a T. They love a good chart and a set of rules to follow. They thrive in structure.
Linear thinkers feel at home in subjects that have clear-cut answers, like math and science. Being right is important to them, and it is possible that being “smart and good” is a key part of their identity. So that means that subjects where answers are more subjective can be anxiety-inducing. Or, they can latch onto the more concrete aspects of creative subjects, like grammar, music theory, and technology.
Linear thinkers are highly praised in most learning environments because they are typically fastidious, thorough, and easy to control. They succeed in areas that are easy to measure, so it’s easy to point to their achievements. But because linear thinkers think with blinders on, they typically don’t consider questions that aren’t asked (Is this ethical? Who benefits from this?) because that would take them off the linear path that their thinking follows. This isn’t to say that linear thinkers are unethical, but that some linear thinkers must make a conscious effort to see the forest for the trees. Linear thinkers are all about efficiency, and issues of emotion tend to get in the way of that.
When you are working with a linear thinker, remind them that different ways of thinking is a skill– something they can work on! Ask plenty of questions. A key component of non-linear thinking is that there are multiple starting points to a problem. Instead of attacking the obvious question first, challenge them to address a variable in the problem. To bring things back to the Kobayashi Maru, the question does not have to be “How do I save everyone and escape safely?” It can be “What can I change about these parameters to achieve the same or similar goal?”
Linear thinkers will respond brilliantly to any methodical process, but how do you make a creative experience methodical? With parameters. Think about a creative process as a dashboard of dials, buttons, and switches, each corresponding to a parameter of the process: color, speed, timbre, texture, height, space, volume, shape, pitch, etc. It helps a linear thinker jump into the fray by giving them a path to stand on: try this, adjust that, make this more, make this less. It requires you, as the educator, to be able to assess, diagnose, and describe quickly and effectively. Being creative can be a source of stress at times, because they aren’t sure how to measure their correctness. Since being smart is likely a large part of their identity, you must tread lightly there. Emphasize that being “correct” isn’t always important, necessary, or applicable, especially in your classroom!
You must also ask the questions that linear thinkers won’t tend to integrate without prompting: What effect will this have on the viewer/listener? What is the civic impact of this work? Does this represent my thoughts and feelings, or am I exploring someone else’s perspective? It all depends on what you are trying to achieve.
Care and Feeding of Non-Linear Thinkers
Non-linear thinkers excel at coming up with new ideas, brainstorming, and witty remarks. Since they see related and tangential ideas easily, they may become distracted or overwhelmed when they attempt something seemingly straightforward. Sometimes, that means they overlook the simplest solution because they are distracted by the endless possibilities outside the parameters of a problem. They may struggle with making decisions and/or following through with a multi-step process. Non-linear thinkers will look at a problem and figure out 45 million ways to solve it, including several ways to change the parameters of the problem to create another 100 million ways to solve the problem.
Improv comics are non-linear thinking masters. The cardinal rule of improv comedy is saying, “yes, and…” when in a scene. Always affirm what was said in your improvised scene (never contradict) and then add to that storyline. You have to be fully in the moment, always be thinking in three different places and times at once, and be funny on top of all that! If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between the skills for stand-up and improv, UCB founder Matt Walsh put it simply: “Great stand-ups are… just waiting to land their next blow… Improv is forgetting your idea and building off your partner’s idea.”
It’s that extreme flexibility and 360-awareness that makes non-linear thinkers creative juggernauts. But it can make them challenging to teach. They can be overwhelmed, unfocused, or disorganized. You can’t fight a non-linear thinker’s natural tendency to be (mentally) in multiple places at once. They just need to learn how to use that to their advantage. It is their superpower, not their fatal flaw.
Non-linear thinkers are going to stand out when you need a free-style rap, a creative solution, or a catchy slogan. But get them to commit to a solution? Well, that’s no fun. Mind mapping or brain dumps are really useful for non-linear thinkers. Students can do these by hand, or use one of the easy-to-use digital mind mapping options: Google Slides, Diagrams.net, and MindMeister are where I’d look first. The great thing about mind mapping or even a simple brain dump is that non-linear thinkers can immediately set their swirling thoughts into the action of writing them down and beginning to organize their thoughts.
The tricky part is the commitment and follow-through. Once they’ve written down their many ideas, they need to organize and assess each idea. Captain Kirk had to assess the risk of changing his test parameters and possibly being reprimanded for cheating. His idea worked, but he had to make that choice and follow through first. Make space and time available for your non-linear thinkers to not only get their ideas flowing, but to test them out against the task at hand as well. They don’t do well in captivity!
Teachers and Non-Linear Thinking
When you read the descriptions of linear and non-linear thinkers, which one resonated with you the most? If you are more of a linear thinker, you will need to improve your non-linear thinking skills to benefit your students. But I bet you’re doing it already! In fact, Dr. Maurice Elias of Rutgers argues that using social-emotional learning in your classroom is using non-linear thinking: “The Captain Kirks of education must stop doubling down on traditional academic instructional time and test preparation and instead devote instructional time to social-emotional and character development and its integration throughout the school day.” As an arts educator, your mere existence is a testament to the importance of different styles of thought and learning. Good on ya!
Also ask yourself: Is your teaching linear? Is your curriculum linear? Do you expect your students to learn in a linear way? Is that the right way, or the convenient way, or both, or neither? To avoid making this post a two-parter, I will just direct you to this article on heutagogy (self-determined learning) that might challenge how you structure your curriculum: https://www.teachthought.com/learning/learning-non-linear-curriculum/
I also feel that non-linear thinking is a crucial aspect of anti-racist thinking and teaching. You must look at your work from a different perspective– in fact, many different perspectives– and that is impossible if you are following one straight line to what you think is “right.” Even if you are more of a non-linear thinker, make sure one of the “non-lines” of thinking that you use is through an anti-rasict lens. Then try out the feminist lens. Don’t forget the LGBTQ lens.
Yeah, that’s a LOT of work. They don’t tell you all this when you’re pre-service, or starting out as a teaching artist. The important thing is to start, and never stop. Knowing your students as the complex people they are is always worth the work.
As a teacher, knowing your “why” – your motivation, your purpose, your mission statement– is incredibly important. In fact, I’d call it essential! It is the basis for how you navigate each day, each school year, and through your career. Teachers are people (somehow we forget this!) and therefore are not neutral– we all have our own unique perspectives, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Being secure in your “why” is the start of being an ethical and effective educator; it means knowing your own reality so you can more easily distinguish your perspective from others’.
But! Simply knowing your “why” is not going to solve all your problems. Knowing your “why”, or even living true to your “why” is not going to help you make authentic connections with your students, identify engaging materials and activities, or fill out your lesson plans. It is not a magic wand. Knowing your “why” can make your job seem (and feel) easier, but it doesn’t actually make your job easier all on its own.
Your “why” is only your perspective, but your classroom is so much more complex than that. I call the people and policies that impact your classroom an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, if one thing changes, the effect is felt all over the system. If you’ve dealt with breaking in a new principal, you know exactly what I mean. Each of the members of your program’s ecosystem– your students, admin, coworkers, families, community leaders, and more– has their own “why.” Those motivations explain their actions, and those actions impact your classroom.
Here’s an example of how knowing your “why” isn’t enough: If you are very much motivated by the idea of maintaining the traditions of classical music, but no one else in your school is, then by chasing only your own “why”, you are going to be running an uphill battle with disinterested students. Or, say you are personally motivated by achievement (hey, me too!) and so, by being true to your “why”, you engage your students in several competitions and juried events annually. But, if your students and families value collaboration over individual pride, your program won’t click with them.
So what can an arts teacher do?
1. Listen and respond accordingly. Listening is absolutely the bedrock of building trust and community. Show that you are listening by making necessary changes.
2. Be in the room where it happens. Become a part of your school’s community by being present as much as possible. That could mean joining a committee, attending sports games, or going to board meetings. Be there to be top of mind for your ecosystem, but more importantly, to show you are there to listen and be in community with them. You are struggling alongside them, invested in what they are invested in, and actively searching for equitable solutions too.
3. Ask questions that uncover their “why.” This can happen in periodic student surveys, at parent/teacher conferences, or in admin meetings. It might sound like, “Is that something that is important to you?” or “What is the motivation for this change?” or “What is the impact/outcome you are hoping for?”
When you understand not just your own motivations, but the motivations of everyone in your ecosystem, you can create a classroom culture and curriculum that inspires, supports, and celebrates everyone. Knowing your “why” is important– but so is knowing everyone else’s “why”. It is the first step in making changes that benefit the entire ecosystem, which, I bet, is probably close to your own “why.”
This is not an easy nor short process. But, I can help simplify it. My job is to guide you and your arts team toward this ground-up and values-based philosophy for more flow and ease in every arts classroom. Stop hoping that it will “get better next year” and let’s make a plan to make sure every year is better than the last!
I have a hard truth to speak about today: Control.
When we’re uncovering our own values and motivations, sometimes we stumble upon something… icky. But when we know the truth about ourselves, that is when we can begin to make real change. And for me, that means admitting to myself that my default reaction to chaos, messiness, or any uncertainty is to try to control it.
Let’s admit something unpleasant: There’s something enjoyable about feeling powerful in front of a room of students. I am in charge. They have to do what I say, just because I say it. If I want, I can make my classroom be quiet… focused… controlled. I want my classroom MANAGED!
Well, then we get into the classroom and realize we have lost control. There’s no focus, no quiet, no listening. And that is insanely frustrating! Classroom management is often the most draining part of being a teacher.
But the problem with thinking we’ve lost control as a teacher is… we never had control in the first place.
Connection is what we need as teachers, not control. Students want and need to feel that someone cares about them as a person, not like they are being policed. There are no fast and easy ways to make meaningful connections with your students. It is a constant process that begins with:
– Unburdening yourself from stereotyping
– Starting a culture shift in your classroom
1 KNOW YOURSELF
Before you can really know your students, you have to understand yourself. What identities are most important to you? What drives you in your work? What are your key values? Then you can know how you relate (or don’t) to your students.
2 GO BEYOND DEMOGRAPHICS
When you’re getting to know your students, get to know them as individuals. Unburden yourself and your students from the expectations you have about them based on their demographic information.
3 BE AN OSTENTATIOUS LISTENER
Demonstrate how you want your students to listen and react to each other. Students learn these skills from you whether you do so explicitly or not– so be aware of how you show your willingness to connect and care.
Classroom culture is complex— but it doesn’t have to be complicated. I’m here to help your school or nonprofit organization make positive change in your arts programming. Don’t just “do good”— do The Critical Good.