For those worried that American public education is in crisis, stop for a moment and consider this: the international survey firm Ipsos finds that teachers are the fourth most trusted group in the US and possibly our most trusted public servants. You would not know that from the public discussions in American news and on social media that suggest that Americans have lost trust in public education and, more distressing
for me as a teacher, in public school teachers. The evidence for this loss of trust takes the form of accusations that we “indoctrinate” and that we lack the requisite training and professionalism to teach effectively. More threatening is the legislation in several states - passed, pending, and defeated - that seeks to limit the ideas and materials that teachers can teach and students can study on the grounds that: 1- the instruction might make students uncomfortable; and 2- teachers cannot be trusted to teach it in age and pedagogically appropriate ways.
I believe that cutting through the noise of accusations amplified in the media, requires regular, local, in-person communication by communities of parents, students, and educators. What follows are three possible actions.
1. What if PTSAs schedule into each monthly meeting a 20 minute dialog with small groups of teachers or organize regular “talk with teachers” events that occur as special events hosted by the PTSA? The dialog would follow a prescribed ethos and procedure constructed to ensure parties listen to understand the other side and speak to respond, not defend. Several constructive dialog formats exist with guidelines and opportunities to train in their use. I think it must be a dialog that invites multiple teachers to talk, though different events could invite different teachers. These dialogues would be separate from the role of a teacher representative to the PTSA who observes
and reports. Teachers should have a choice to participate or not, so that it is perceived as an opportunity, not a duty.
2. Ask teachers in the school or department to organize a professional development program (PD) to share best practices about how they build trust and address concerns of parents. While teachers already share informally, an intentional workshop to share best practices is a form of PD that teachers might value, both for what they learn and the credit they can earn. Follow up PD can evaluate practices and consider adoption of what works. Teacher-directed PD has the additional benefit of building peer and institutional trust.
3. My last idea is to ask teachers, PTSAs and other groups to develop what they believe might work within their community to rebuild trust and try it with a commitment to figure out what works. Like in a classroom, engaging the stakeholders in conceiving the solution wins buy-in to support the solution. For teachers, I would encourage awarding PD credit.
Trust is the glue of healthy societies, healthy relationships, and healthy schools, while apathy and accusation are powerful solvents. Schools are a ready-made place to build the social capital of trust. Trust-building is one of the first activities teachers engage in with their students, because effective learning requires that students trust their teachers as experts and guides. Trust maintenance continues throughout the year, because complacence weakens bonds of trust. Show trust in teachers by helping them
rebuild trust lost during COVID rather than use threats and restrictions that question their professionalism and scare them away from being their professional best for our children.
About the Author: Monte F. Bourjaily, IV teaches AP US History, AP US Government, and Law & Society in public school in Northern Virginia. He has written this essay in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this essay are his personal views and do not reflect the views of his employer.