We lose students’ trust when their opinions are collected and nothing is done with it. Students come to the table and share, or a survey is done, and the information is not used for anything. It’s important that students see their voices in action, that people are following through. If they see evidence that there is follow through that encourages them to continue. If there’s no evidence their voice will be used they will shut down. Actions are more important than words.
Sometimes, within a school, a student culture characterized by distrust of adults establishes itself. This can arise through the layering of past experiences and become increasingly entrenched. Clearly, such a student culture poses serious challenges for all educators committed to character development through youth empowerment.
It is worthwhile remembering that building trust is a process, not an event. It takes time and repeated positive experiences to demonstrate to students that adults are trustworthy. Young people notice adult hypocrisy, such as double standards, or student consultation followed by a lack of action. When we put ourselves forward as proponents of youth empowerment, we need to “walk the talk”, striving always to live up to the standards we have set, and to be honest and humble about our errors or slips.
"Walking the talk" in this context means staying true to the vision of power-sharing through collaborative decision-making, accountability, transparency and authenticity. By consistently acting with integrity on a daily basis, we incrementally lay bricks to build the foundation of a relationship based on trust.
For First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, building trust may take place over generations, given the abuse and oppression experienced within the education system by members of these communities. We can launch that process today by working as allies, instead of authority figures.
Part of building trust is ensuring students’ safety—a precondition for learning and for empowerment. Only when they feel safe (and strong!) can students feel free to be themselves, to ask questions and fully express what is on their minds and in their hearts.
In order to establish a trusting rapport with students who feel alienated or disengaged, we will need to reach out and invite them into connection with us, repeatedly and in creative ways. This is the groundwork needed to build relationships, if only gradually until we succeed in earning students’ trust and respect.