Trusssssst in me…..

Mowgli and Kaa the snake

Kaa had a pretty dubious way with Mowgli, but then trust is a slippery concept to begin with. Yet the notion has been in the ether a fair bit recently, and in the blogosphere with comments ranging from “Yes I do trust them but I’m just checking anyway” (sic) through to “The way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them”. Unfortunately, no time to check back for the sources at present…

Trust is arguably another weasel word, and we would do well to reflect on what it means and how it is used, particularly in the febrile world of modern education. We might even conclude that it isn’t, in the raw, a particularly helpful concept.

Saying “I trust you” without any kind of qualifier is arguably the height of naivety, for all that it might be flattering.  I can think of only a very small number of people in the world to whom I might say that. But responsibility for the problem lies with both parties: given that we cannot foretell the future, accepting someone’s unconditional trust may well be to lead them firmly up the path to expectations that simply cannot be delivered. On the other hand, placing trust without specifying the parameters is potentially a recipe for failure.

Another problem comes from the importance that is placed on those expectations. ‘Trusting’ someone to put some rubbish in a bin a rather different proposition from trusting someone to get a heart operation or a flight landing right. Therefore one might be more or less careful with the way the word is bandied around depending on the situation.

Equally, the same criteria might inform the willingness with which we accept such expressions of faith. I hope that those on whom our lives depend do indeed assume our trust with due gravity.

We also need to distinguish between trust in intent and trust in outcomes. I would argue that the former is actually more well-founded in the latter: one is implying faith in someone’s intention to do their best, and perhaps carries with it the implicit acceptance that the outcome may still not always be as desired, since even the most trustworthy of people may sometimes fail for reasons beyond their control. The latter, as I mentioned earlier, may be more foolhardy given the uncertainty of the world we inhabit; we might prefer to comment on someone’s reliability in delivering a particular outcome, which is subtly different from exhibiting trust, since it relies more on past track record and perhaps less on future good intentions, conscience or principles.

In education, the stakes we play for are not, at least in any defined sense, a matter of life or death – though this is not to deny that they are significant. Unlike the trust we (perhaps reluctantly) place in a surgeon, the trust placed in a teacher is less far-reaching. The beneficiaries of our trustworthiness do usually live to tell the tale, and given that fact, it seems reasonable to be able to expect to place fair trust in a teacher to do their job. But that last phrase – do their job – hides a serious problem.

‘Doing their job’ in my understanding involves making great efforts to stimulate young minds, to open them to the world around, and to create the possibility for lives well lived, and within reason to support the quest for success in the form of formal validation. That, I feel confident I can deliver, for the effort required to do so is very largely within my gift. But increasingly, ‘do their job’ seems to mean ‘deliver the best outcomes’ (for which read exam results). As I have discussed before, I am not confident that all the important factors involved in that narrower definition do lie within my gift. Clearly, my teaching is a significant part of the equation, but there are so many other factors over which I have little or no control, ranging from circumstantial ones to the willingness of the pupil to be educated in the first place, that I feel it is unwise both of society to trust teachers to deliver something so specific, and indeed of teachers to accept that trust. And yet, somehow we seem to be drifting in the direction of equating trustworthiness with delivering exam results, aided and abetted by the high stakes now being placed on such numbers and letters.

While the situation is like it is, I am not convinced that it is either realistic or wise for teacher to be ‘trusted’ in the sense that many would want – that of being left alone to do what they judge right with pupils. After all, if you die on the operating table, all the trust in the world will make no difference. And neither do I really want to accept trust for something I cannot in all honesty guarantee or control.

Yet we persist with seeing trust as a virtue – and why not? It implies goodness of character, perhaps even moral virtue. It is fully compatible in my mind with the role of the teacher: what is wrong is not the notion of trusting teachers, but the level of expectation that is being applied to it. Trust needs to be realistic, and accept that even the most trustworthy may fail occasionally, perhaps without their status necessarily being called into question. In the sense of trust, what is important was their intentions, and to some extent their actions inasmuch as they had control of them.

There is also another issue which is relevant here, which may warrant its own post another time: that of Knowing.  In order to have reasonable confidence in another, such that one might consider trusting them, one needs to know them well. And by this I mean an in-depth knowledge of the salient factors that govern that individual, not the superficial familiarity upon which we often rely.

Modern education, as with much of modern life, is being increasingly depersonalised. This is partly due to the sheer scale on which many things operate, partly down to our increasingly commoditised view of ‘success’ and partly down to the over-individualised mindset that sees others merely as vehicles for the meeting of our own demands, rather than complex people with their own qualities and agendas. Many of the judgements currently being made on often spurious numerical or criteria grounds are surrogates for more subjective but ultimately more informed and more sophisticated decisions made by and about real people. When you have nothing more specific to go on, depersonalised measures of reliability are all there is – but this is not at all the same thing as real trust.


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