• Travis N Thurston, PhD

Learn to Trust People with Firsthand Experience

I recently came across an article on trusting those with firsthand experience and it reminded me of an experience that changed my professional career path.

person reflecting on a walking path
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash


Learning to trust those with firsthand experience sounds pretty straightforward and logical, but time and again we see instances of leaders thinking they know better. Such were my thoughts as a young teacher advocating to the state legislature for my job and for my students. When I started teaching at Bear Lake high school in 2009, the state of Idaho had just made education budget cuts and were confronting additional cuts over several years to come due to the recent economic recession.

For me, the low starting teacher pay was further compounded by having no budget for my classroom, my contract hanging in the balance each year, and in 2011 a proposal from the state superintendent to address the additional budget shortfalls that were sure to come: cut teacher jobs. By cutting teacher jobs the state would see a significant ease on the purse strings, and would instead bring in private/third-party online schools to make up for fewer teachers. Part of the proposal would require Idaho students to take online courses in order to graduate.

Call to Action

As a third year teacher professional who had just finished a college degree in a field that appeared to be rapidly disintegrating I felt like I needed to take a stand. Along with dozens of teachers across Idaho I traveled to the steps of the capitol to plead our case. A public hearing with a joint committee of Idaho legislators was the forum provided for us to share our experiences, our insight, and our vision of what k-12 education in Idaho would look like from our perspective in the trenches. For me, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. I had prepared a very compelling use-case against this proposed online initiative. One of our brightest and highest performing students at Bear Lake had decided to take an online course, because that particular course wasn’t offered at our rural SE Idaho high school. While this student excelled in the classroom with those of us who had had the pleasure to teach her, we were certain that it was the lack of structured support that had caused her to perform so poorly in this online class. Teachers matter. Teachers can help students succeed.

However, before I stepped up to the mic to share this message it was clear that it would not be heard that day. The public forum appeared to be nothing more than a charade, and the committee wasn’t interested in hearing from teachers with firsthand experience. Instead, one legislator in particular addressed the large crowd that had gathered asking if there were any non-teachers there to speak, because the teachers are just biased about these cuts. He added that we teachers were just interested in self-preservation. Fair point, sir.

Finding a New Path

Perhaps we were biased. Biased by teaching students day-in and day-out. Biased by seeing the negative impacts that large class sizes have on our ability to reach individual students. Biased by our firsthand experience. Biased because we cared about our livelihoods. And yes, we did care about our own professional futures. One legislator pointed out that if we really cared about being good teachers then we should be willing to work for whatever wage fits the state budget. This, as some Idaho school districts were cutting teacher pay by as much as 10%. A perfect non-example of how we should treat those with firsthand experience.

There was a mass migration of teachers out of Idaho that year, and my professional path took an unexpected deviation. I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in educational technology and found my way into the higher ed space supporting faculty to create online courses as an instructional designer.

I went from fighting against online courses at the steps of the capitol, to training higher ed faculty on how to design and facilitate online courses. I further spent the last four years researching how to improve online teaching in higher ed. Talk about an unexpected character arc.

Lessons Learned

What have I learned? What lesson do I want others to takeaway from my experience? That’s simple. We need to learn to trust people with firsthand experience. Instructional leaders need to trust their educators, and educators need to trust their students.

1. Know Your Students

Trust starts with acknowledging our need as educators to learn from and with our students. In all of my preparation if I don’t know who my students are as individuals, and what interests they have there is no way I will reach them or learn from them. This takes time, and requires us to build a relationship of trust with our students, so they understand that we authentically care about them as people not just pupils. When I know my students, my teaching becomes much more relevant for them.

  • How do you alter your approach after getting to know your students?

2. Consult With Students

Trusting students means allowing for learning outcomes to be emergent. Some of my best experiences as an educator have come from consulting with students to identify project outcomes, and individualized ways to demonstrate what they learned. While I'm an advocate for backward design and being explicit in our expectations, most of that planning and prep is done before I even know who my students are. Allowing learning outcomes to be emergent shifts to a student-centered approach to learning.

  • How do you allow learning outcomes to emerge with your students?

3. Coach Your Students

Trust means that we are in this together. Regardless of what level students enter my classroom they know that I will give them timely and intentional formative feedback that will allow us to celebrate their accomplishments at the end of the semester. I don't want students to see me as an evaluator, but as a coach that is investing in their development. When I provide feedback to my students it's not a judgement, but the start of a conversation, and a jumping off point for improvement.

  • How do you provide intentional formative feedback to your students?

Learning to trust students means validating who they are individually and collectively, recognizing the lived experiences they bring with them which inform where they are going, and adapting our approaches to fit their needs. We need to trust students, because, as @amyreesanderson concludes in her piece,

“no amount of research or studies or endorsements can ever hold up to someone who has actually been there and done it for themselves.”

Dr. Thurston holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, and a master's degree in Educational Technology. With over a decade of experience as an educator, Travis is a former k12 teacher and instructional designer, a visiting professor at Universidad Casa Grande, and the Assistant Director of Empowering Teaching Excellence at Utah State University. Discuss this post with Travis @travesty328

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