Earning respect in the classroom

Teaching is hard.  A new teacher approaches the classroom with wide-eyed eagerness, intent on changing the world one life at a time. She sweeps in with research-based, well rehearsed lesson plans and inspirational speeches. She determines to love each and every child and to reach the ones that have never been reached before. She scoffs at warnings from the teacher who tells her that students can be so very difficult and the teaching career can begin to wear down the staunchest.

Time passes. The best lesson plans and the greatest inspirational classroom speeches are met with apathy and sometimes outright disgust. One student, and then two, and then half a dozen at different times have laughed at, ridiculed, and even gotten into the face of the teacher to make sure she knows how dimwitted and useless they feel that she is. Her dreams, her aspirations, her worthy desire to change a life one student at a time is ripped away from her, one student at a time.  

One day she walks out of the classroom, a mere shadow of the wide-eyed teacher she once was, and the same teacher at whom she once scoffed pulls her aside and says, “Whatever the students say to you and whatever they do, remember this: Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It has never been about you.” 

Now she has a choice. She might give up the fight and begin to go through the motions of teaching. She will do her job, but she will never do it well or with passion again. She will decide to protect herself from the apathy and disrespect from the students by increasing her own indifference. The students will sense it almost immediately. Most will respond with a shrug and an enhanced detachment of their own. Everyone will go through the motions, but no one will be teaching. And no one will be learning.

But if she’s one of the good ones, her response will be very different. 

Students come into the classroom every day with their own stress, situations, and sometimes serious problems. A teacher, whose daily focus is one lesson plan after another, can easily forget this. A student who had an argument with a friend or family member before class that morning, already anxious and about to boil over, might be set off by the simplest thing a teacher says. Most of the time, it’s not about the teacher. It never was. But the teacher is trapped in her own world, obsessed with the success of the lesson plan and her need to “change the world.” When the student responds with such vehemence, the teacher is hurt and insulted. Her hard work has been spat upon yet again. This produces an inevitable conflict between the student and the teacher.  

Mutual respect must begin with the teacher, because he or she has the advantage of being the mature one. The teacher is able to remind herself, “It’s not about me.” Then she can dissolve the tense situation with respect and kindness towards the student.  This does not mean that the teacher backs away. Respect includes discipline, but true respect and successful discipline are never meted out in anger. Instead of yelling or becoming angry with the student, the teacher is able to calmly remind the student about respectful and appropriate behavior. Most students, in turn, will respond with mutual respect. 

Some students show disrespect because they are accustomed to teachers giving up on teaching and giving up on them. They are daring the teacher to label them “lost causes.”  The good teacher knows this and refuses to play. One day, she kneels beside the disrespectful student and whispers in her ear, “I believe in you and will never stop believing in you. Never.” She moves on without pause. If she glances back from the corner of her eye, she might see the student sit up just a little straighter. This doesn’t end the disrespect, of course. Now the student needs to find out if the teacher means it.  But the good teacher does mean it, and this student’s disrespect will be consistently met with respect. It’s not an easy battle. It’s a battle set out to prove to one child that she is worth the fight. It’s a battle the good teacher will choose to fight.

Respect begins when a teacher finally understands, “It is not about me.” It is not about the lesson plans or the inspirational speeches or the teacher’s own misguided need to change the world one student at a time. It is about the students. They come to the classroom full of their own expectations and concerns, and many of them are desperate for someone to care about them and to fight for them. When the good teacher learns this, then she can change the world one student at a time.