In Defense of Public Consequences

My ten-year-old daughter played softball this past summer, and I could not believe how she was publicly humiliated. In one game, she hit the ball down the third base line. As she hustled to first base, the throw came in off line. The girl caught it in front of the bag and tried to tag my daughter, but my kid dodged out of the way! She was safe!

But the umpire called her out for leaving the baseline.

Right in front of everyone!

My daughter had to walk back to the dugout in shame because of that umpire’s call!

It’s not just softball. This public humiliating of kids happens in almost every sport. When a kid commits a foul on the basketball court, the referee blows a whistle — a whistle! — and everyone stops and waits. Then this awful excuse for a human being points right at the kid who broke the rule and announces to literally everyone in the gym that the kid screwed up.

But he doesn’t stop there!

Because then he goes over to the scoring table and signals the kid’s number and explains exactly what the kid did wrong. Then he takes the ball away –again, with everyone watching — and gives it to the other team.

In football, the referees throw a bright yellow flag on the ground. They then punish the ENTIRE TEAM for the infraction of just one kid. How is that fair? It’s like the referees are trying to destroy the team ‘s culture. How can anyone expect the guilty kid’s teammates to feel anything other than resentment toward him?

Hockey is even worse. The cruel adults in this sport blow their whistles, report the offenders, and then they actually make kids sit in a BOX! They don’t even try to sugarcoat what they’re doing. They don’t call it the Think Box or the Second Chance Box or the Stop and Reflect Box. They call it the Penalty Box! They lock them in a cage where everyone can see them!

It seems to me that if an athlete breaks a rule in any sport, the officials ought to be able to tell them without shaming them in front of everybody. These referees should find a way to quietly whisper to the players, encourage them to do the right thing, and stop embarrassing them!

What I can’t understand is why these kids keep playing these sports. Do they want to be publicly shamed? Do they like being embarrassed?

And why do parents allow this to happen? Where’s the outrage?

No, For Real

If the above sounds a bit ridiculous, then you will understand my feelings about those who criticize teachers for giving students public consequences when they break a rule in the classroom.

There is a large contingent of teachers and education thought leaders who say there is no place for public discipline in the classroom. These critics say that teachers who call out bad behavior are humiliating kids and robbing them of their dignity.

But public consequences exist for important reasons, and shaming kids isn’t one of them.

They Let Everyone Know What’s Actually Acceptable

I played high school basketball. I quickly learned that there were two types of referees: those who would “let you play,” and those who nailed you for even slight infractions. The written rules of the game were the same, of course. A rulebook existed that spelled out exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t on a basketball court.

But there was room for interpretation. Put a hand on a guy’s hip with one ref and get an automatic whistle, while other refs let the small stuff slide. If basketball isn’t your game, then the same can be said for the strike zone in baseball or pass interference in football.

The same is true in every classroom. Teachers have their posted rules and expectations. But until those rules are enforced, no one really knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Many classrooms have the rule, “Raise your hand to speak.” But teachers vary greatly in how strictly they enforce it. It’s through public consequences that the line is quickly understood by everyone in the room.

Words are just that. Words, whether gentle or firm, don’t always convey our seriousness. Asking a student to stop interrupting a lesson doesn’t always work. Asking them again is more of the same. Like referees in sports, teachers need to take action to show they actually mean it, and the whole class deserves to understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

They Allow for More Efficient Teaching

Critics of public discipline will say that the teacher should praise publicly and criticize privately. They should stop teaching their lesson (or allow it to be sabotaged and then talk to the saboteur afterward) in order to avoid embarrassing a student with a public reprimand. They should surreptitiously walk over and have a quiet word to redirect the wayward student.

Going over to a kid and telling them what you expect is fine, maybe even preferable, but it’s sometimes impractical.

The teacher and the students who are doing what’s expected shouldn’t be inconvenienced by those who aren’t.

Every kid in the room already knows what’s going on. They know who is breaking the rules and they want it stopped, just as any kid who plays in a basketball game wants the referees to do something about the kid who fouls his opponents every time down the court.

Those kids are messing up the game. They can’t be allowed to continue to do so. Public consequences keep the lesson moving so everyone else can do their job.

They Allow for Easier Parent Communication and Support

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used star charts. Many teachers in my school (including this one) use a clip chart to track daily behavior. Other teachers write names on the board and add check marks for each rule infraction. Technology allows teachers to keep track of behavior with apps like Class Dojo. But why keep track at all?

For the same reason they do in sports. Fouls and penalties are recorded (and often displayed on a huge scoreboard for everyone to see) because failing to learn from your mistakes is a problem. You can’t continue to go on messing up the game and keep playing. Eventually, the consequences get more severe. Players foul out. They’re red-carded. They’re removed from the field. Screwing up is fine. Continuing to screw up isn’t. This is a message all kids should learn early.

Tracking behavior also makes it easier to communicate. When a parent wants regular updates of her child’s behavior, it’s much easier to say “She had three strikes,” than it is to recall and report on each broken rule. “Dave committed five fouls in six minutes,” says plenty about how Dave played the game, just as, “Dante was on red before lunch” lets everyone know that Dante had a really bad day.

So why do public consequences like behavior charts receive so much scorn, when public consequences in sports go unremarked upon? I think it’s mostly out of fear and a lack of trust. There is the potential for abuse, and unlike in an arena or on a field, teachers work behind closed doors. Parents (and other teachers) have to trust that teachers won’t use public consequences to shame kids.

Like everything in the classroom, it’s not so much what you do but how you do it.

Lectures can be boring or illuminating. Group work can provide important collaboration time or can be a hot mess of conflict. And public consequences can be used to shame kids or to reinforce the rules and keep things moving efficiently, as they do in sports.

Note: My favorite article on how to enforce consequences was written by Michael Linsin. It shouldn’t surprise you that he recommends teachers act just like referees.

Engagement and Relationships Aren’t Cure-Alls

The truth is more important in teaching than in most areas because we have a gaping chasm between what young people expect teaching to be and what it actually is. I believe the gulf between expectations and reality explains why so many quit before they’ve properly begun. Those of us who’ve been in the game for a while have a responsibility to tell the truth about our jobs. And some of us are doing of a poor job of it.

A quick scroll through my Twitter feed, which is almost entirely made of teachers and those pontificating about teaching, reveals the popular belief that nearly all classroom ills can be solved by doing two things:

  1. Build relationships with students.
  2. Teach engaging lessons.

Show the kids you genuinely care about them and they’ll treat you with respect. They’ll work harder for you. So spend five minutes chatting. Attend their soccer games. Sit next to them. Ask about their kitty cats. A student won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You’ve heard it all before.

Plan more engaging activities and watch behavior problems disappear. Raise the bar and kids will meet it. Students misbehave because they’re bored, or they don’t see the relevance, or the work isn’t challenging enough.
This article on classroom management makes a bold claim:

“Effective educators say that the best classroom management plan is an engaging lesson plan. Once you have that, then you will not have to worry about any discipline problems in your classroom.”

You won’t have to worry about any disciplinary problems. The author is hardly the only one espousing such a rosy view.

Well, as Lee Corso likes to say:

Let’s take a step back from the pretty fluffy thoughts that make us feel good and actually think for a second.

Consider the Playground

Ask any elementary kid what his favorite part of the day is and there’s a good chance he will say recess. Recess, if done right, is largely unstructured play time. Kids can do damn near anything they want. They can choose who they do it with. Autonomy. Choice. Fun. All things a very engaging activity would have, right?

What could possibly go wrong?

Have these people who claim engagement will solve every behavior problem never had recess duty?

Because I can tell you from vast amounts of experience that engagement on the playground doesn’t lead to some rainbow-smeared utopia where children all get along, make responsible choices, and hold hands in song. In fact, many of the same students who struggle to behave in a classroom struggle to behave on the playground, which suggests there might be a few other factors that influence children’s behavior other than whether or not they feel engaged.

Share the following premise with any group of students:

“A pack of boys has to figure out how to survive on an island with no adults around.”

Watch their reaction.

Do they look terrified at the thought?

Hell, no! That’s a dream come true!

And could anything be more engaging than having to figure out how to SURVIVE? Talk about a STEAM project!

But, as anyone who has read Lord of the Flies knows, this sort of engagement doesn’t lead to everlasting peace. Quite the opposite. Jack becomes a lunatic. Piggie dies. The conch is broken. They set the island on fire. So much for engagement.

There Will Be Problems

As for relationships, consider your own family. I love my wife and daughter. They love me. There is a lot of mutual respect, built up over many years. That doesn’t mean we don’t screw up. I say hurtful things. My wife’s patience runs out. Our daughter gets lippy. Conflict is a part of being human. We’re emotional. We’re petty. We’re selfish. We get stressed out, hungry, and tired and we do and say stupid things. So does every kid in your class. There will be problems, no matter how good your relationships are.

Now let me be clear. Is it preferable to build relationships with students and engage them in meaningful activities? Of course it is. Your classroom will be a nicer place to be. Kids will behave better. They will learn more.

You should definitely build relationships and make your lessons interesting.

But will doing those two things put an end to all conflict, poor choices, and laziness?

No, it will not.

Let’s stop making teaching sound easier than it is. Quit offering magic solutions that do nothing except create unrealistic expectations that lead to frustration when the prescribed solutions don’t work the way they’re promised. Good relationships with students will help. Better lessons will, too. But neither are cure-alls. When you’re dealing with human beings, nothing is. And when we’re talking about teaching, there are no silver bullets. Can we quit pretending that there are?

Don’t Let the Last Hour Spoil the Whole Day

end of day

Here is a list of nonsense words:

lurst, nifkin, bluck, pansate, wazzle, morky, wolire, chagg, fonticule, kittop, glope, tercopular, moobin

Fun, aren’t they?

In 1964, a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments using words like those above. He wanted to determine whether the position of a word on a list affected how easily it could be recalled. To accomplish this, Ebbinghaus prerecorded lists of nonsense syllables, then played them to himself and tried to recall them. He found that the words near the beginning and end of the list were more readily recalled than those in the middle. He called this the “serial position effect” and postulated that the words at the end of the list were more easily recalled because they were still in his short-term memory, a phenomenon he called “recency effect.”

The recency effect is a recognized cognitive bias nowadays, and you see it everywhere. Your favorite sports team (and its coach) is judged by what they have done lately, regardless of how successful they’ve been in the past.  Investors make decisions based on how the stock market has done recently, instead of paying attention to historical trends. Companies use the recency effect in their marketing by making sure the product is as attractive as possible at the point of purchase. You get angry with your spouse over some trivial matter and forget all about the wonderful things they did just last week. Recency matters, and the classroom is no exception.

The recency effect explains why the last hour of school has the potential to ruin your (and your students’) perception of an entire day.

Earlier this year, my class was really struggling during the last 45 minutes of most days. I’d shoehorned science into this time slot and was attempting to include a lot of hands-on group work into my units. Students were not handling it well. Many were off-task. Patience was thin. Kids argued and fought over everything from who got to use what, to how long they used it, to whose idea was good and whose wasn’t. There were more than a few blowups from students whose frustrations reached the boiling point. And of course, my own willpower was at its nadir. I had little tolerance for nonsense and that just made the whole thing even more volatile. It wasn’t a good situation.

When I got home and my wife asked me how my day had gone, I told her it was horrible. I replayed what had happened at the end of the day and lamented how poorly I’d taught procedures and expectations. I complained that I wouldn’t be able to do hands-on, fun science experiments because the kids just couldn’t handle it. I was mentally drained, physically exhausted, and I didn’t even want to think about going back the next day.

This was the recency effect at work. But the truth was quite different.

For most of the day, my class was great. Mornings almost always went well. The students listened, worked hard, got along, and had positive attitudes. Most of the afternoon was productive, too. More students were on-task during independent reading than I’d had in years. They worked well with partners. Even recess was good. We had very few behavior problems on the playground.

When I really thought about it, the only time my students had trouble was during the last 45 minutes of the day. The problem was that when I went home for the day, it was this 45 minutes that I remembered. It left a terrible taste in my mouth, and since the recency effect also works on children, it was a horrible way for students to end the day, too. I imagine that after those chaotic science lessons, many students went home with few good feelings about being in my class. They likely shared those opinions with their parents, just as I had with my wife.

Ending your day poorly is a really good way to destroy your classroom culture, as well as your own enthusiasm for the job.

I had to find a way to combat the recency effect. So here is what I did. Try these strategies if you are finding that your last hour is spoiling the whole day.

Awareness

First, be aware of this cognitive bias we all have and give the end of the day the same weight you give the rest of it. At the end of my difficult days, I took a few minutes to just sit at my desk and replay each subject in my head. This way, I could remember how students had done during different periods of the day and remember that although we might have ended on a sour note, most of the day was actually pretty productive. Acknowledge the recency effect, and don’t judge your whole day based on how it ended.

Focus on the Majority

We teachers have a tendency to focus on the negative outliers, and I’m no different. 20 students can be doing their jobs, but if three are arguing and one of them throws a fit and goes storming out of the room, the whole lesson feels like a debacle, I feel like a failure, and I worry what students think about my classroom management. Instead of focusing on the problematic few, I try to force myself to think about the majority. I’ve written more about this in my article, How to Feel Like Less of a Failure.

Understand Why It Happens

While doing research for my book Exhausted, I learned a lot about willpower. We start each day with a given amount. As the day goes on, we use it up. By the end of the day, our stores of willpower are exhausted and we have a much harder time regulating our emotions. Glucose is the fuel we need for self-control. By 3:00, we’re pretty low on it, so students have a harder time using willpower to do the right thing. It takes energy to resist temptation and have patience with others, and by the end of the day, many students, especially those who have to use the most willpower to do the right thing the rest of the day, just don’t have any left. I explained all of this to my students, but while understanding helps, it doesn’t make it any less infuriating when you feel like the class is going off the rails.

Teach Expected Behaviors

Since I knew the last hour was going to be a challenge, I committed to being much more intentional and detailed about expectations. Before we got out the science materials and split off into groups, I taught and modeled exactly what students needed to do. We also made If/Then plans for handling predictable obstacles. “If Tony isn’t sharing the magnet, then I will remind him that everyone needs a turn before time is up.”

Prevent

Frankly, all the modeling and careful attention to detail annoyed me. I’d spend 15 minutes going over all this stuff, which meant students were pinched for time to perform the science activity, which led to some of the problems I was trying to prevent. In my book Exhausted, I write about how researchers have discovered that people with the most self-control actually use very little of it in the way we normally think about exercising willpower. They don’t will themselves to do the right thing by staring temptation in the face. Instead, people with a lot of self-control use it preemptively to avoid temptations and distractions. College students with exceptional self-control use it to sit in the front row instead of using it to avoid daydreaming or playing on their laptops in the back of the lecture hall. Dieters don’t use willpower to stop themselves from eating a bowl of ice cream at night. They use it to not buy the ice cream in the first place. Knowing this, I finally figured out that the best way to set my class up to be more successful — and the best way to go home feeling good about my days — were to rearrange my schedule so that students wouldn’t have to use so much willpower at a time of day when they had very little of it. I moved science class to the morning and put writing–a much quieter, more independent subject–at the end of the day. That solved more problems than anything.

Flip the Script

The recency effect doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be used to your and your students’ advantage by ending every day with something positive. Brainstorm a list of things you could do with the last ten minutes that will linger in your and your students’ memories. You might have students share something good that happened to them, either aloud or in writing. You could end the day with music and dancing. You can end with a game that builds the classroom culture. You could have your class meeting at the end of the day and share positives and goals for the next day. At the very least, you could do as Michael Linsin recommends in this post and end each day with calm, predictable procedures and high-fives all around. Send them home smiling and excited to come back tomorrow. Send yourself home the same way.

And now, since you’re at the end of this article, do you remember any of the nonsense words at the start of it?

Wait, let me guess….

Moobin?

 

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One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

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Every teacher I know would like to take less work home. It’s a worthy goal, and part of accomplishing it is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

Many teachers never grade papers in their students’ presence. With only so many hours in a school year to make a difference, they feel like when students are in the room they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or mentoring. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Will she look down her nose or think the teacher lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work just doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. How can you do this in an educationally sound way that’s scientifically proven to benefit kids? Simple:

Give your students breaks.

Transitions Are Stupid, Breaks Are Not

I started giving my third graders five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. And I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transition seamlessly from one activity to another. When I finish this blog post, I won’t immediately start planning next week’s lessons. I’ll watch football, or check Twitter, or eat Cheetos.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students five-minute breaks. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back in their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Science Agrees: Breaks Are Good

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, adjust our moods, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak onto a game site during work time.

Breaks can also help students get over frustration. One morning I was picking student jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student got upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved directly into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention during the lesson and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game, and by the time we resumed, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Communicating with parents, writing sub plans, and grading papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

For Your Critics

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and should the need arise, you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development session with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to waste a single minute.

See how that goes over with your critics.

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Related:

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working For Free

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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4 Must-Dos for the First Week of School

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A regular reader of mine who is about to start her first teaching job emailed me to ask what she needs to do to be ready. It would take a book to answer that question (and someday I might write it), but I told her there are four things she absolutely must do during the first week of school.

ONE: Make Students Want to Come Back

If your students don’t like you and enjoy being in your class, you’ll make the job twice as hard on yourself. As Rita Pierson says in this video, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Additionally, if your classroom management plan involves the use of a time-out or removal from your class, you better make damn sure students see that as undesirable. I’ve known of students who intentionally get kicked out of class because they’d rather be in the office or with the counselor than in the classroom.

There are lots of ways to sell yourself and your class to your students. Use humor, have students work together to build something, perform an engaging science demonstration, play music (real music, the kind kids actually like), give breaks, tell a couple entertaining stories. You want to make the first week fun. People like fun. But fun isn’t your only option.

One of my favorite strategies is simply to listen. I am not a terrific listener (just ask my wife), but during that first week, my students have my full attention, no matter how long and banal their stories may be. So many students aren’t listened to that you can immediately endear yourself to them if, when you call on them and they start talking, you stop what you’re doing, look at them as if you are the only two people in the room, smile and nod along as they talk, and ask a follow-up question when they finish.

Now, making your classroom fun is not a license to be permissive, nor is it necessary to encourage silly behavior. You have to be careful. Everything you say and do sends a message that first week, and you don’t want your message to be that your classroom is an amusement park. At minimum, just be yourself, don’t be afraid to laugh with your students, and be vulnerable.

TWO: Teach the Living Hell Out of Your Routines

If it’s your first teaching job, you probably aren’t sure which routines to even have (I still add some and I’ve been doing this 18 years). First step: go online and print out the biggest list of procedures you can find. My advice is to overdo it. Anything you can think of that you will regularly ask students to do in your room, from leaving their seat, to going to the bathroom, to sharpening pencils, you should have an explicit routine for. You should teach the hell out of it, by which I mean teach it like you actually care that’s it’s followed to the letter.

The best advice I’ve ever seen about teaching routines is that you should be extraordinarily specific about the very first one you teach. Then you should have students perform that routine over and over until it’s exactly how you envision it. You don’t have to do this with every routine (although you should teach, model, and have students practice them all), but attending to the smallest details with the first one sends the message that there is a way to do everything in your classroom and that that way is your way.

Most classroom management problems happen because teachers assume kids know how they want things done, but they don’t take enough time to thoroughly teach routines and have students practice them. You can nip a lot of problems in the bud by teaching, reteaching, modeling, asking students to visualize, and then having them practice each of your routines until they’re executed to perfection. I’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

THREE: Introduce Your Classroom Management Plan

Students deserve to know what’s expected and what will happen should they fail to live up to your expectations.Some teachers put off introducing the rules on day one because it’s kind of a downer. They want to make their room an inviting place, and taking 30 minutes to explain to students what they can’t do and what punitive measures you’ll take if they choose to do those things feels negative.

That’s the wrong way to look at rules. Rules allow for fun. Imagine a basketball game where no one dribbles and you can’t get a shot up without being tackled. It would suck for everyone. Most students want and appreciate boundaries because they know they’ll benefit in the long run. Again, be crystal clear and role-play as many different scenarios as you can think of that will likely happen this year. Role-playing gives you the opportunity to teach, but it can also provide entertainment value if you’re not a huge grump when acting out situations. Of course, once introduced, it’s imperative that you follow your plan to the letter. Break your own rules, and students won’t trust you. They’ll question your will to crack down on every consequence you threaten the rest of the year. You lose your authority, and no matter what your style, authority is something you have to be willing to do everything to protect.

FOUR: Call Your Shot

The last idea I stole from motivational speaker Josh Shipp. It’s a good way to build trust with students right out of the gate. Chances are high that you have a handful of students in your room who have been let down, sometimes frequently, by the adults in their lives. Many of them have a default setting of distrust. You won’t be able to reach them until you chip away this barrier.

Shipp recommends, “calling your shot.” Like Babe Ruth hitting a home run after pointing his bat toward the outfield seats, calling your shot means you promise something and then do it. This year, I had a student who refused to sit in his chair. He was leaned over his desk and in continual motion. While our counselor introduced herself to the class, I went and sat by him and asked if the chair was uncomfortable. He told me that it was and that he didn’t like sitting in it. This was a good opportunity to practice Shipp’s advice.

“If I brought you a cushion, would you use it?” I asked him. He assured me that he would. So after school, I found a five dollar cushion at Wal-mart. He sat on it the rest of the week. But more importantly, I showed him that I’m a man of my word. My work is far from over with this student, but five dollars is a good investment if it means he starts to trust me.

You don’t have to spend money to call your shot. Just make a promise to your students –we’ll go out early for recess, I’ll give you a break in five minutes — and then make sure you do it. Do this enough, and you’ll gain your students trust.