“I’m ready to quit my job. These students just don’t respect me.”
“Well, I hate to break this to you, but most kids don’t instinctively fall in love with their teachers. What have you done to earn their respect?”
“Oh, please! They preached that stuff to us in undergrad, and I’ve tried it all: showing interest in students’ personal lives, teaching with enthusiasm, and staying consistent with discipline. But some of the kids won’t even look at me when I talk to them. They act bored or whine when I teach, and half of them treat my classroom management plan like a joke.
“Bummer. What do the other grade-level teachers say?”
“They tell me the same kids are fine in their classrooms. It’s like I said: these students just don’t have any respect for me.”
Disrespect is a classic attitude issue, especially as it relates to the interpretation of “attitude” that I shared in October. First, disrespect is a perception, a way of seeing. Second, various emotions, such as contempt or indifference, may accompany that perception. Finally, the attitude of disrespect is often manifested in certain behaviors.
Unfortunately, the attitudes of students often affect the emotions and behaviors of teachers, and the problem of disrespect is no exception. I call this phenomenon the “attitude germ.” Two reactions to disrespectful behavior are common among teachers. Some perceive it as an assault: they tend to feel vindictive and use discipline as a form of retaliation. Others conclude that the issue lies with a deficiency in their own personality or teaching: they may feel inadequate and become discouraged. Of course, the two reactions occasionally go hand in hand. Teachers who feel incompetent amid disrespectful students, for example, might try to prove themselves with discipline that is more severe.
I would like to offer another interpretation of disrespect, one that leaves us with more hope than the two inferences I just shared. Before I do, though, allow me to make one point clear: disrespectful behavior in the classroom is intolerable. Over the course of time, this blog will feature a variety of strategies for addressing problems related to respect. However, because the true identities of attitudes are easily mistaken, adults sometimes respond to disrespectful behavior in ways that escalate the problem. Seeking to understand what is occurring beneath the surface leads to better choices in responding. Let's take a look now at an alternative way to consider the problem of disrespect in students.
Disregard for authority is often related to a lack of trust in one's teachers. You see, closely related to the perceptions component of attitudes is a fourth element occasionally mentioned in attitude theories: the beliefs aspect. The way we perceive things is often colored as much by what we do not see as it is determined by what we do see or experience. Regarding the problem with respect, students sometimes think, feel, and act in relation to their presumptions about teachers instead of holding attitudes that reflect a teachers’ actual behavior.
Various factors can contribute to such an ill-founded view. Students may prejudge teachers on their rules, the appearance of their classrooms, or their clothing style. They may also form impressions according to reports that they hear from other students. Children who feel that they have been treated unfairly in a particular situation, for example, may retaliate by convincing classmates that the teacher is unkind. As a result, children who normally display a positive regard for authority can turn uncharacteristically negative or obstinate. Their beliefs about the teacher play a bigger role in determining their attitude toward the teacher than their actual experiences do.
How do we address respect issues that stem from a lack of trust? How might we respond when students’ impressions are misguided? Building, or rebuilding, their trust is crucial. I have experienced favorable outcomes by focusing in three areas.
First, as one of the teachers in the opening dialogue suggested, show respect for students. Act with courtesy, even in the process of discipline. Confront in private—not in front of others—and exercise calmness when you need to impose consequences for misbehavior. Try to avoid group penalties if the instigators of a problem can be determined. Finally, show unconditional respect: don’t allow behavior or academic performance to affect the way you relate to children. Show consideration for all of your students, all of the time.
Second, demonstrate transparency in decisions that affect the members of your class. Teachers tend to feel attacked—or disrespected—when students complain about the choices they make. However, if you genuinely desire a classroom climate where learning is meaningful, where students feel safe and have an opportunity to succeed, then you have no reason to become defensive when someone questions your decisions. Of course, young people should be taught to voice their objections in respectful ways. My students are asked to write me a note or to talk with me at break time, for example. But if you suspect that a problem with respect may be related to a lack of trust, developing a pattern of openness is an effective way to increase that trust.
Third, try asking your students for their input. This suggestion may seem outlandish: when young people fail to show due regard for authority, the last thing we may think they need—or deserve—is more power. The logic behind seeking input can be found in motivational theory. Social psychologists have long known about a basic human need for control: when we have no choices about things that matter to us, we tend to find ways to regain control, even if our methods are incongruous with our other values, such as honesty or respect. Inviting students to share their opinions does not require turning one’s classroom into a democracy. Instead, begin by thinking of a few areas in the instruction or management of your classroom where you could afford some flexibility and allow students to offer their suggestions. As I look back, two of the most dramatic shifts I have seen, in regard to issues of respect, occurred when I finally stopped fighting with students and started paying attention to what they were trying to tell me. Inviting input builds trust in authority and dispels disrespect.
To summarize, our beliefs influence our perceptions in the same way that our actual experiences do. Therefore, teachers can cultivate respect in students by earning their trust. By now you may be wondering: how can we know if disrespectful behavior stems from a lack of trust or if it is pure defiance? In most cases, we cannot determine the true nature of an attitude. Therefore, I recommend presuming that the problem is a trust issue and respond in the ways that I have already outlined. In addition, whereas external control over attitudes is an unrealistic goal, we can insist on respectful behaviors. As I said a moment ago, my students are required to air their complaints with discreetness.
Next, we will begin to address that troublesome “attitude germ.” Amid our struggles with resistant children, how can we inoculate ourselves against the temptation to retaliate or to become discouraged? If you are looking for more immediate advice on dealing with discipline issues in the classroom, you might try my book Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline. Until next time, I would encourage you to think of ways to increase the trust of your students in you as their teacher.