Classroom 101: Respect

How is it that we expect to command respect from a group of strangers who have never met us, know nothing about us, and very often want nothing to do with us or our content? And yet, teachers everywhere walk into classrooms on that first day, read out a syllabus and a list of rules, attempt to impose order, and are bewildered that they are not being respected.

Respect needs to be earned. We all know that. Yet we don’t seem to apply that self-evident truth in a classroom environment. Kathleen Cushman’s book Fires in the Bathroom (2005) points out that in a survey of hundreds of high school students across the United States, the number one quality kids look for in a good teacher is that he or she respects their students.

Why is this is such a high priority? Especially in challenging environments, where students grow up never receiving the respect all human beings deserve, never having the opportunity to voice their opinions or be heard, where violent wars are fought everyday over turf and respect, it is crucial that students are both respected and teachers earn their respect.

How do we respect students?

By acknowledging their funds of knowledge. Students are not blank canvasses waiting to be filled with the masterly strokes of our brilliant pedagogy, they are works of art already in the making, each a masterpiece crafted by their own experiences. If we as teachers allow them to express their views, to share their experiences, to voice their opinions, then we open the door to sharing knowledge. When we understand that teaching is not a one way flow but that true learning happens in a back and forth dialogue between students and teacher, where each understands and values the contributions of the other, then we are showing respect.

So how does a teacher earn respect?

When a teacher begins by respecting the voices and experiences of the students, then he or she begins to earn their respect. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s messy and at times a bit scary. Students don’t sit in neat rows, eagerly soaking up knowledge. They will challenge you, resist you, defy you and ignore you. At first. Keep in mind that they have spent years viewing the teacher as the enemy, the one who shuts them down, ignores their voice and imposes their will, forcing them to plod through a dead and dry curriculum in which they have no interest.

Mastery of content is not enough. A teacher earns respect by taking the time to explain to students why the content is important and how it will be useful to student lives.

A teacher earns respect by simply showing up every day ready to teach and to learn and demonstrating an unwavering commitment to helping students gain the skills they need to succeed.

As I explained to my credential students, the teacher is often the only reliable adult in many students’ lives, the only one who shows up everyday, who is willing to share information, who is willing to guide and motivate, who is a role model whether or not they realize it. While they may begin by resisting, most students appreciate this and when allowed voice and given respect, will return that respect tenfold.