Trust, Teaching and Character Education

Last week, Andria Zafirakou was announced the winner of the Varkey Foundation’s annual Global Teacher prize. Over the weekend, the Guardian published an interview with her entitled ‘Best teacher in the world Andria Zafirakou: ‘Build trust with your kids – then everything else can happen’. From a character education perspective, this interview is well worth a read. In it, Zafirakou mentions the importance of helping children establish their own characters. What is her advice for teachers keen to follow her example? As the title of the interview suggests, for Zafirakou, it all comes down to trust.


If trust is so important to teaching, and indeed, cultivating the character of pupils, then it is perhaps important to spend some time clarifying the concept. Here the work of the philosopher Onora O’Neill is a good place to start. Inspired by the idea of a crisis of trust, following the banking crisis, O’Neill has published and spoken extensively on the topic of trust. Of the many insights O’Neill has brought to the topic, two seem particularly pertinent for those interested in character education. First, promoting ‘trust’ in society should not be a focus for policy makers; increasing ‘trustworthiness’ is a much more appropriate aim. Moreover, when it comes to trustworthiness, the attributes of reliability, honesty and competence are requisite. That is, trust is well placed in individuals who are reliable, honest and competent with respect to the task that they are being trusted to perform.


Interestingly, polls consistently show that the general population trusts teachers. This is encouraging. Trust is integral to the teaching profession. For one thing, as Zafirakou points out, the classroom itself needs trust; or rather, children need to feel their teachers are trustworthy (reliable, honest and competent) in order to learn. For another, parents who distrust teachers are less likely to collaborate with those teachers. Moreover, it would seem, teachers themselves need to feel trusted, both by parents and pupils, but also by politicians and policy makers.


For the character educationalist, trust is multifaceted. Following O’Neill, trustworthiness depends on certain character qualities, or, perhaps, virtues: reliability, honesty and competence. A virtuous teacher builds this trust with the pupils in their classes.  Nevertheless, it is important to know how these teachers are facilitated to become trustworthy in this sense. This is consistent with the aims of a new project at the Jubilee Centre, which is looking at how teachers are prepared and supported to meet the ethical demands of their roles. Another current research agenda at the Jubilee Centre is to analyse how parents and teachers collaborate to promote character and virtue among children. As such, one aim of this project is to examine the idea of trust between parents and teachers further. Therefore, going back to Andria Zafirakou’s recent interview, it might be said that there is a great deal of convergence between the centre’s ongoing research and Zafirakou’s insights on teaching.


Katy Dineen is a Research Fellow in the Jubilee Centre, working on the parent-teacher partnership project.

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