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06.21.16Competence and Trust, Part 1–A Guest Post from Dan Cotton

My colleague Dan Cotton and I have been talking on and off for much of this year about relationships and classrooms- both the importance of relationships but also some of the more surprising aspects.  Dan’s written a series of thoughtful reflections that I’m going to post–and respond to–over the coming days. Here’s his first:

Trust is the bedrock of healthy relationships – between spouses, between parent and child, between principal and teacher and, of course, between teacher and student. Walk into a great teacher’s classroom and it’s likely that you’ll find a strong relationship between teacher and students.  But at the same time the nature of those relationships might surprise you.  They might, for example, look different from other warm and caring relationships.  Because of course what it means to have a relationship that one might call “strong” and “trusting” is different depending on the setting.

It’s worth thinking this through a bit more then: what do we mean when we stress the importance of building strong relationships with students?  And what kind of relationships are strongest?

When educators envision a classroom where strong student-teacher relationships exist, I think they often gravitate to expressions of warmth. We transpose how we express warmth in other relationships in our lives to the classroom context:  A bright and genuine smile, a light touch on the back, an inquiry about grandma or sister. Those actions, without question, signal caring, and consistent expressions of caring, over time, build a foundation of trust.

Equally true, and I think much less frequently acknowledged, is how critical competency is in fostering trust, and therefore, healthy student-teacher relationships. Students want teachers who help them grow and develop.

Long before students decide whether they want to form an attachment to a teacher, they are making judgments – unconsciously, perhaps at the lower elementary level, consciously for sure in middle and high school: Can this teacher do his job well? Can he manage the class so that learning happens?  Does this teacher know his stuff — to help me when I struggle and push me when I’m ready for more? Fundamentally: Is my time in here well spent? Students’ sense of connection to the teacher flows quickly from these judgments. Managing one’s classroom well, content knowledge, instructional skill are about competency, and they are as essential to any conversation about building student-teacher relationships as actions explicitly done to convey caring.

Why is competency so often perceived as separate from relationship building with students? Is it that we lean solely on finding analogues to the ways that we express and experience connections to our friends and family? Is it an anxious reaction to a perceived conflict between helping students achieve academically vs. connecting one-on-one as fellow human beings? As educators, we do ourselves and our students a disservice when we misperceive the tools of competency as separate from the tools of relationship building.

Fostering trust is essential for all teachers to do with their classes but—and this is the point that is often overlooked–it cannot be achieved without competency. In fact competency is one of the critical ways teachers build trust.  Even when they develop warmer and closer relationships with students, this is often where it starts.

In a recent article, two business school professors articulated the qualities and actions that leaders exhibit that build trust:

Leaders who inspire the most trust exhibit two distinct traits: warmth and competence. “We trust warm people, because we believe they care about us,” say the authors, “and we trust competent people because they are credible, effective, and efficient.” (“Building Trust: A Leader’s Action Plan” by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer in Nano Tools: Wharton Leadership, October 29, 2015,, summary cited in Kim Marshall’s Marshal Memo,

This I think is also true for teachers: Warmth and competence are both required to create strong, trusting relationships. In classrooms where a teacher exhibits genuine caring and competence, student-teacher relationships will be vibrant. In cases where a teacher exhibits genuine competence, but not much warmth, strong student-teacher relationships, I suspect, will still exist. In classrooms where caring is exhibited in abundance but competence is lacking, strong teacher-student relationships will decay, and ultimately collapse.

The word “competency” can sound cold and lifeless, a desiccated term that feels out of place in a reflection on relationships. And yet, when I think about the kids I’ve taught, some of whom I helped thrive, some of whom I failed, (if I’m being honest), I know that in the cases where I struggled, it was never from a lack of caring, but from the gaps in my own competence. I think too about the two kids I’m most responsible for, my own, and I know that as much as the love and affection I hope I smother them with every day, that my competence as a parent – to convey truths, to set limits, to strike the right balance of autonomy and guidance—shapes the health of our relationship too.

If you’re in education, it’s likely that at some point in your schooling, you had a teacher that had a significant influence on you. The relationship may have grown to include time connecting outside of the classroom, or it may have remained contained to the 50 minutes a day you spent together learning Algebra, or Government, or PE. I’d bet, that looking back, you see that warmth may have been present, but competency certainly was too.



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