Building and Repairing Trust in the Classroom

Categories: Teaching Effectiveness Award Essays

By Jes Heppler, Philosophy

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2023

The problem of getting students to feel comfortable enough to speak about high-stakes topics is not new. Nevertheless, in an era where social media can build or destroy a reputation, many students who are just beginning their adult lives are keenly aware that what they say can have a profound impact on others and themselves. As a GSI for Philosophy of Race in Spring 2022, during a moment when public discourse on race and racism was changing dramatically, I wanted to create a sense of trust, belonging, and psychological safety so that students could freely explore the ideas and arguments of the course without fear of being “canceled.” On the first day of class, on Zoom, a student (who I’ll call B) accidentally unmuted themselves and made an audible homophobic comment about me, a visibly queer GSI. I now faced the problem of rebuilding trust in three ways. B, having made an inappropriate remark on the first day, exemplified the far end of what many students were afraid of—that they’ll say the wrong thing. Second, there was a substantial risk that the community, especially LGBTQ+ students, no longer trusted that the classroom was safe for them (and indeed, many students expressed this to the instructor and to me). Finally, there was a risk that even if B was remorseful, B would not feel welcome in the classroom after making such a mistake. 

To rebuild trust in the classroom and to be in service to the learning of all my students, I first reached out and offered B forgiveness. I expressed the negative impact that B’s comments had on LGBTQ+ students, and let B know they were welcome to stay in the class. B apologized and expressed remorse, as well as a desire to learn more about issues like race and gender. 

Second, to rebuild trust within the classroom community, I took time to speak about what had happened. The student offered a public apology to the classroom, and I followed by offering philosophical tools to think about what it means to make a mistake in a college classroom. I acknowledged the hurt that many students felt and framed this incident as part of a larger political moment in which people are learning how to talk about race in the U.S. I offered words from movement theorist and writer adrienne maree brown about how shunning those who make mistakes is counter to the goals of learning, inclusivity, and liberation. She writes, “Canceling is punishment, and punishment doesn’t stop the cycle of harm, not long term. Cancellation may even be counter-abolitionist…instead of prison bars we place each other in an overflowing box of untouchables – often with no trial – and strip us of past and future, of the complexity of being gifted and troubled, brilliant and broken.” I emphasized that many students enter and leave university with radically different beliefs. As much as we need to be respectful of others and mindful of not making assumptions, learning requires that we make mistakes, face discomfort, and pursue relational repair. This philosophical framing accomplished two things: first, it offered students a new way to think about discussing difficult topics and making mistakes in the classroom; second, and more importantly, it modeled what relational repair looks like in the classroom.

I assessed my method according to the levels of participation in the classroom, the general classroom dynamic, and evaluations. B ended up staying in the class and was a positive and insightful participant throughout the semester. Other students worked with B in groups multiple times; while I did not ask students how they felt about B being in the classroom, I noticed other students engage normally with B. Second, I monitored how the classroom dynamics fluctuated throughout the semester. As we discussed the subtleties of understanding racism, I invited students to disagree with each other. We practiced this by “poking holes” in the premises, particularly when students agreed with the conclusion. In doing so, students practiced critical thinking while also strengthening their positions. I frequently returned to the idea that in the classroom, we are “throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.” After I reminded students of this, students who hadn’t spoken yet would often speak up. Reminding students of this framing was an effective way to get more students to speak more freely about the ideas and arguments. Finally, the student evaluations scored the class participation level at a mean of 6.5/7 and repeatedly noted that students “felt comfortable asking questions…on controversial issues,” “felt… able to make mistakes and not know something yet still participate,” and that sections were “welcoming,” “comfortable,” “low-stakes and high-impact.” Because the most significant challenge happened on the first day, it is difficult to imagine what the class would have been like otherwise; however, I believe that my approach successfully modeled and created an environment of safety, trust, and belonging that allowed us to discuss race and racism in the classroom. 

  1. brown, adrienne maree. 2021. We Will Not Cancel Us. AK Press.