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Building Trust: Student-Centered Strategies That Work


Students often feel like outsiders in their own classes. Even if they like teachers on a personal level, they still might not feel like their contributions to learning are valued in class. Unless teachers extend the relationships they nurture with students into the instructional realm by creating a safe space for academic risk-taking, there is little chance of creating the conditions necessary for a student-centered classroom. With a few simple moves, a learning environment where all students are validated can result in more profound connections and trust between teachers and students.

Make Classrooms a Safe Space

A student-centered classroom cannot become a reality unless children feel that the teacher takes their ability to learn seriously. Consider the role of humor in the classroom. Teachers may think that adopting a lighter tone will help to engage students, but that is not always a wise approach. For one thing, not all students find the same jokes funny. Depending on age, language acquisition, or culture, kids often misinterpret humor at face-value or worse, as cruelty. It is fine to be lighthearted and even silly at times, but if the primary method teachers use to connect with students is being funny, that could possibly result in two undesirable outcomes. The first is that students who do not get the joke will feel left out; the second is that if a teacher is sarcastic, children read dry humor as being flat-out mean. It does not matter if a perceived slight was intentional or not. Once students stop trusting teachers, it is almost impossible to repair the damage.

Facilitate Student Contributions Wisely

For some students, raising a hand and being incorrect does not represent significant risk. However, for many of the children we serve, the possibility of being wrong is enough to keep them from volunteering ideas or responses. Equitable calling is important, and students should be given multiple opportunities to contribute their thoughts. However, the way that teachers respond to any comment from a student is key to ensuring trust. Suppose a teacher asks, “What is the main idea of the passage we just read?” and a student offers an interpretation. How the teacher handles the next couple of seconds can be crucial. If the teacher simply says, “Okay,” and turns to someone else, that dismissiveness could be enough to deter the student from willingly speaking up again. Equally unfortunate is that the teacher will probably not know the student has been discouraged. To ensure that the process of facilitating discourse is centered on prioritizing student thinking, consider the following best practices:

  1. Validate all responses, whether they are correct or not. Wrong answers should be celebrated as an ideal way to move the understanding of a concept forward by engaging in conversation.

  2. If a student answers incorrectly, the teacher should not look to others to provide a more desired answer. This practice invalidates the student who responded first. Instead, try to talk the student through ideas to help make thoughts more visible to everyone in the room.

  3. There is nothing wrong with pausing instruction when a student seems confused. If one child does not understand the content, the likelihood is that many others are in the same situation. Stopping for a moment to let students turn and talk or generate questions together is an effective method for empowering their learning.

Erase the “Gotcha”

When teachers ask a question, it can be difficult to ignore the hands that shoot up into the air immediately and be strategic about who to pick first. Calling strategies are tricky, but necessary. If executed properly, they elevate multiple voices; however, when teachers use them incorrectly, they can have the opposite effect. Questioning should not feel like a test. Instead, students must be given advance warning that they may be asked to respond. Then, the teacher can give students time (either alone or with peers) to brainstorm a response. If students are not pre-alerted about being called upon and provided with processing time, they are more likely to see class as a trap. Student-centered instruction hinges upon a “no-secrets” classroom – an environment in which students know what they need to do to be successful and teachers treat them as partners of learning.

Keep the Focus on Kids

Teaching might feel like performance art sometimes, but students are the true stars of the show. For classes to remain centered on kids, learning must be a shared responsibility. To keep the focus where it needs to be, a few simple strategies can help to ensure that students are just as active in their learning as teachers:

  1. Wait Times 1 & 2. When teachers ask a question, we typically wait about half a second before calling on the first hand that is raised. Instead, waiting five full seconds (known as Wait Time 1) gives more students a chance to step forward. It might feel like a long time, but teachers must resist the urge to break in and “save” students. Then, once a student responds, Wait Time 2 necessitates that the teacher waits five more seconds before replying. In that space of time, the student who initially spoke will often elaborate, or another student will volunteer a contribution. By providing time to process without preemptive assistance from the teacher, students experience a higher degree of investment.

  2. Talk less, listen more. When teachers step back and listen, student thinking becomes clearer. By stepping back, we can learn so much more about what students know, what they are uncertain about, and where to go next.

  3. Change it up. Instructional models can change from day to day or even within one class period. For example, a class can begin with a brief whole-group discussion and then bridge to station rotations. Or, the class can engage in a Socratic Seminar before transitioning to work on a project independently. When a teacher varies delivery and structure, students with multiple perspectives and learning needs benefit.

Contrary to popular opinion, building strong relationships with students is not about knowing what their hobbies are or whether they like pineapple on their pizza. These incidental details matter to a degree, but unless students trust teachers to guide them in the classroom with methods that nurture a safe environment of shared responsibility, rapport will never go beyond surface level. To establish and maintain a more profound relationships that support instructional goals around student-centered learning, building a risk-free academic space that elevates all voices in the room produces results that lead directly to student achievement.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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