How to Show Students You Respect Them
Originally published August 2010
By Alex Van Tol
As a student in the Faculty of Education, I learned a little bit. I discovered how technology was changing the way students are taught in the classroom; I figured out how to approach the algorithm of multiplication from a variety of angles to accommodate different learning styles; I learned how to spend four hours labouring over a 30-minute lesson plan to introduce a picture book to a group of Grade two students.
All useful, though not all necessary.
Not once, however, did my course group have a lesson on how to create a harmonious atmosphere of respect in the classroom. Sure, we had a guest speaker come in to discuss “disciplining the difficult child,” and various strategies for classroom management were offered to us by our instructors. We shared horror stories from our in-school practica and tactics for controlling wayward students. But nary a mention of respect.
This isn’t to say that education programs in today’s universities are weak or ineffectual. I certainly learned some important skills in university that I still use in the classroom today (thankfully I’ve since learned a more time-efficient method of planning lessons). But ask any teacher and he’ll no doubt tell you that by far the steepest part of the learning curve occurs outside the four walls of the lecture hall and inside the classroom.
Consider, for example, the long and winding road I took to learning the importance of showing respect for each of my students. I’ll be honest: I’m a Reformed Control Freak. From my earliest days of teaching backstroke to wiggling, wet, chlorinated children, to my numerous summers as a sunburned, underpaid camp counsellor, and even into my first few years as a classroom teacher, I sought to control children’s behaviour, rather than to respect and understand it.
Thankfully, as a developing teacher I hung around some strong mentors on my staff, and was able to dump the controlling streak for a compassionate approach to dealing with children.
You see, here’s the thing that some of us—teachers and parents alike—don’t really take time to stop and think about: kids’ feelings have value too. And they all have their own needs and wants at any given time. Imagine trying to get 25 adults to do the following, and in perfect sequence:
a) Sit down (in a seat that they don’t get to choose, and perhaps next to someone who smells like pee and picks their nose when they think no one’s looking).
b) Remain in a hard chair for up to two hours (without sitting cross-legged, standing up and stretching, or grumbling about their discomfort).
c) Be silent and pay attention (this means not talking to a nearby friend and not playing with their smartphone). Tall order, isn’t it? But we persist in expecting this type of cookie-cutter behaviour from kids during the seven hours we share with them each day. And when someone in the classroom doesn’t feel like conforming to these edicts, we feel threatened.
Harsh criticism is levied upon the perceived troublemaker, we engage in a (usually public) power struggle—during which one of us is sure to lose face—and both parties leave the situation tense, angry, and determined not to be made a fool of again. At the teacher’s end, the reins tighten. On the student’s part, she loses respect and trust in her guide, therefore making her behaviour even harder to manage.
How to avoid this? Show some respect.
Listen. No, really listen. Stop what you’re doing. Make eye contact. Your current task isn’t that much more important than the concern of the person whose job it’s yours to guide. If you’re busy, tell your student so, but make time later for her to air her concern. Everyone deserves to feel heard. Paraphrase if you’re not clear on what the message is. Make her feel understood.
Address your students like you address your peers. You wouldn’t snap,“Get your shoes on NOW, Eloise!” to your colleague in the staff room. (Well, maybe you would, but then…have you ever considered telecommuting?) Sure, you need to maintain order in the classroom and keep the group moving forward, but this can be done in a respectful way. Keep your tone low and even. Never raise your voice. Use the same tone when addressing a child as when you’re addressing someone you work with. Be gentle, not bossy. Ask yourself how someone whose respectful manner you admire would handle the situation. (Think of Julie Andrews. “Hmm. What would Fräulein Maria do right now?”) And as a bonus, you’ll look like you have it way more “together.”
Offer choices. Give your misbehaving student a choice between two possible outcomes. Say, “Right now you have a choice. You can choose to put your shoes on and join the rest of the class as we begin our lesson on geography, or you can choose to (insert appropriate consequence here, such as ‘stay inside next recess’ or ‘eat your lunch by yourself’) instead.” Offering choice allows a student a chance to save face, and it allows you a bit more room to dodge defiance with grace. Be persistent.
Be fair. Ever worked for someone who changes the rules whenever it suits them? Right. There’s nothing more frustrating. Stick to what you say you’ll do. Don’t change the rules without explaining yourself and informing your students of your reasoning. Of course you’re allowed to change your mind – and even to make mistakes. You may have to make some alterations during the course of a project, or throughout the year. But don’t be afraid to say you’re sorry, or that you were wrong. Kids think it’s amazing when their teachers fess up to not knowing everything. And you don’t. So why fake it?
Follow through. If you promise something to a child, follow through like you would with a peer. This has everything to do with integrity – that same elusive value that we spend most of the year trying to instill in our kids. Don’t say you’ll mark a series of tests and then blow it off. Mark them. If you tell a child you’ll do something, look after it. Kids learn what to expect of the world not only through interactions with their peers, but also with caring adults. If you’re not to be trusted, why should they strive toward living with integrity? And how can we expect it from them?
Show you care. Take a second to ask Ian about his violin recital. Remember when it’s Adrian’s birthday. Write a short note in Emma’s agenda complimenting her on her participation in today’s math game. Give Inez a special responsibility in the classroom so she won’t feel the need to play class clown so much. These little gestures will stand out in your students’ mind for years to come. You don’t have to spend much time on them – just show you care.
Try these simple strategies in your next interactions with your students. You’ll be surprised at just how quickly you can turn around the tone of a year, and create a climate of respect and tolerance in your classroom.