Learn…to Live Well: Respect

Let’s look at the student-teacher relationship from the other side of the two-way street.

First a question: Does someone have to ‘earn’ your respect, or ‘lose’ it? Seems an innocent question…or is it? If someone has to earn your respect, doesn’t that imply you didn’t respect them from the get-go? Whereas losing your respect implies you gave them a chance and they blew it. [Related: a look at ‘implied bias’ next blog.]

I bring this up because times have indeed changed, affecting, in education, the all-important relationship between teacher and student. Back in the olden days when I was a student, my parents held teachers in high regard and expected I respect them. They were held in regard for being educated, trained to teach, and respected for forfeiting the extrinsic reward (money) for the intrinsic reward of helping children learn, grow, and become, for lack of a better term, good, successful citizens. [Compensation for such an important job needs revisiting, by the way.] Teachers assumed the responsibility for creating a promising future for their students...certainly a job worthy of respect. And, parents supported their children’s teachers by their attitude…that was passed to their children.

I could cite numerous studies, but, although a generalization, I believe it’s common knowledge too many students do not respect their teachers today. Where does this lack of respect come from? Parents: where do you think it comes from? They weren’t born with it.

Another personal example to illustrate: a teacher at the high school I taught at had had a nervous breakdown and was given a leave of absence. Her regular English students were distributed to other English classes. But, one class, a ‘skills’ English class was deemed to have ‘problem’ students in it (purported to have been the main cause of the breakdown), and so were not distributed to other English classes. I was asked to combine my two Creative Writing classes for the second semester and take over this class.

First day, to a lot of grumbling, I gave them a simple writing assignment in order to assess their abilities.

Next day several showed up without their assignment. I explained that if I was to improve their skills, skills necessary to getting a decent job, they’d have to do my assignments. That, of course, they could choose not to, that I didn’t know what the previous expectations were, but, if they didn’t do this assignment like the next day (for the delinquent writers), as well as my other assignments, they would fail the class. Bringing a big “F” home for the semester.

So this kid, I still remember his name – let’s just say DK – yells out “Fuck you!” Well, I’d never had a student say anything like that to me and my Irish ire rose to the occasion. I grabbed him by the back of his collar, hauled him to the door, and basically tossed him out into the hall telling him he was no longer welcome in my class.

It seems rather than go to the principal’s office he called Daddy, his savior, to come pick him up. At the end of the day, the principal (same one in my last blog) came to my desk informing me we had a conference the next morning before school…and that it involved a parent accompanied by an attorney. Hmm… The principal was non-committal when I explained what had transpired.

When I got to the principal’s office the next morning (late as you might have expected), I found DK sitting off to the side with a look of smugness spread across his derelict face; a ‘suit’ sitting across from the principal; and a red-faced Daddy pacing back and forth.

In a mild rage, Dad sputtered something about abusing and man-handling his son and my losing my job. I interrupted and asked him if he allowed his kid to say “fuck you” to him? His mouth and eyes both opened wide, he glanced over to his son whose smugness melted away as his eyes sought the floor. “Of course not!” Dad exhorted.

“Me either,” I said.

I can’t say DK’s attitude was tremendously uplifted in class, but he, along with the rest of the class, all passed. Something which may well not have happened if I hadn’t attained their respect.

An aside: one of the students, PV, an over-weight, unkempt, but highly intelligent young man, came up to me after the ‘incident.’ He asked if I was serious about the ‘flunking’ bit. When I assured him I was, he explained he had never done a written assignment, he was so dyslexic he felt he couldn’t write, which was why he was in the ‘skills’ English class, and they had passed him along each year because they knew he was smart. Long story short: his senior year he won the National Council of English Teachers’ Award and a full ride to Harvard. Had I not gained his respect by taking an action I’d likely be fired for today, I doubt that would have happened. [That it’s the little things that decide fate is scary.] You understand it’s very difficult to teach effectively when students are disrespectful and you have no control.

So, parents: I thoroughly understand wanting to take your child’s side in every circumstance—I was a parent of five as well as a teacher—but I’d suggest you give the teacher (or coach, who is another likely very important figure in your child’s development) the benefit of the doubt. Yes, there will be teachers not deserving of your respect—I had some as a student—but appreciate the remarkably tough job they have, made tougher by students who are disruptive and don’t respect their teachers. That teacher-coach-person, after you, may be the most influential person in your child’s life and development. It is a job deserving of a lot more respect than they are, apparently, currently receiving.

And remember, the more respected the teaching profession is and teachers are, the more dynamic will be the people attracted to the profession: win-win-win. [Note: we currently have a shortage of teachers in the U.S. I wonder why? This is a huge problem we need to address NOW. You and your children are instrumental in solving this problem.]