Distrust Breeds Fear

11/20/2005 09:34:00 pm

This will be the last post in what I've begun to think of as my "Fear Trilogy." I think the issues we've been debating here will become increasingly important over the next little while. They will become the bottleneck through which blogging must pass before it can be accepted throughout the mainstream educational community. However, like Miguel, I feel it's time for me to move on.

Some Definitions:

TRUST: Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.

TEACHER: One who teaches, especially one hired to teach.

TEACH: To cause to learn by example or experience.

EMPOWER: To equip or supply with an ability.

The issue of trust, related to blocking content on school division web servers, came up in the dialogue between Bud and Miguel that I talked about in my previous post. In a comment to Bud's post Miguel wrote:

We just don't trust our teachers -- to run their computers, to teach information literacy, etc. In Districts with integrated learning systems, lock-step scope and sequences that must be followed religiously, it's clear they are not trusted to even teach. The reasons that happens are legion, but I'm sure you can concede the point that trust is not something teachers enjoy universally in the United States.

I found this chilling.

In the various leadership positions I have held over the course of my career I have paid particularly close attention to the habits and behaviours of people that impressed me as exceptional leaders. One of the most important lessons they have taught me, and their less gifted counterparts have confirmed time and again, is: Trust is empowering; distrust is stifling.

Think back to any job or position you've held where you felt excited about what you were doing; where you felt you were working together with your collegues towards a common goal and everyone's energy in pursuing that goal was contagious. Think also of the converse situation; where you didn't want to leave the house in the morning to go to work. Where every moment you were at work you felt as though someone was looking over your shoulder, waiting to jump on the first thing you did wrong. I've had the good fortune and misfortune to work in both environments.

I've done my best work when my boss had the attitude that the mistakes I made were learning experiences. They had faith and trust in me that I would do better next time and do my best to fix whatever it was I had broken. I always did learn from those experiences. In one summer job I had I was a miserable failure; if anything could go wrong that summer it did. Nonetheless I was invited back the next summer because my boss felt that the experience I had was valuable. I was a superstar that summer. Over the years that followed I rose to the highest position possible in the company.

This is no different in the teaching profession. Those of us who work with administrators who support our efforts to take risks and try something new; something outside the mainstream; something like blogging with our students; feel empowered to accomplish great things. The simple act of an administrator letting a teacher know that they have a firm reliance on their integrity, ability, and character equips them with the ability to provide their students with experiences that lead to rich learning environments. In short, trust empowers teachers to teach.

If a teacher is not trusted to teach then students cannot learn. Distrust breeds fear and fear creates an environment inimical to learning.

As I listened to Virgil and Myrna talk in Miguel's podcast the other day I got the distinct impression that they held opposing points of view. I also got the impression that they had the best interests of their staff and students in mind. Miguel makes this excellent point:

As a director of instructional technology, I'm willing to advocate and support these places of learning. However, as an administrator, I also have to decide in advance, articulate it in policy, what I will do when I encounter the situations you can't imagine--or perhaps will not because of blog evangelism--from your vantage point as a teacher. I cannot be afraid of imagining what may go wrong, as well as what may go right. I must consider every closed door and what lies beyond it.

I agree with Miguel that administrators "cannot be afraid of imagining what may go wrong;" which colours their view of experimenting with new technologies. But it seems to me there's a happy medium for all of us. Virgil and Myrna both said, that if a student misused a blog under the school's auspices and the teacher or administrator didn't address it once they learned about it they would be liable. But that's the key point; the problem arises when students misuse resources provided by the school and teachers or administrators knowingly ignore it. That is irresponsible and worthy of censure. That doesn't entail disallowing the use of blogs altogether -- it means that if someone behaves irresponsibly there are consequences for their bad choices. Those who make those bad choices will get the lion's share of the press, but they are a minority. Most teachers came into this profession for all the right reasons and are genuinely motivated by doing what's best to help their students learn.

Look, we're all on the same page here; we want what's best for our kids. Have a little faith in teachers to make choices that are in our student's best interests. Open up the possiblity of creating rich learning ecologies and when someone purposefully misuses those resources censure them. But also expect mistakes -- that's how we learn. If we don't allow the opportunity to make well intentioned mistakes then we also close the door on learning; and no one wants to do that.

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