Is Teacher Respect Just a Transaction?

A MiddleWeb Blog

These posters and others like them are in about six places in my school, including my classroom.

I’ve decided I hate them.

I mean, I don’t hate them. I guess I just think they’re facile, suspect, misinterpreted and manipulable?

Yeah, I hate them.

I’m not a grinch by nature, so laugh with me about how this first column of 2021 decided to start itself. Then share a little think time with me as we dive back into the educational fray.

First, I have never been so grateful for a break. I did nothing – NOTHING – related to school except draft this column. If you, too, did nothing – congratulate yourself. You deserved this time to juice back up, spend time with your family, get some sleep.

And if you worked? Congratulate yourself. You deserved this time to continue to be a dedicated, caring individual who is making a difference in the world.

You see what I did there. I gave you respect. Unconditionally.

I think that’s what really worries me about the concept of the “respect” poster. It defines my relationship to you as an “if-then” proposition. It poses the student-teacher relationship as a transaction. If I give you, the student, respect, then you are bound to give me, the teacher, respect. And if you give me respect, then I will respect you.

This is highly questionable on a couple of levels, and our kids know it.

First, the word “respect” has in many educational lexicons come to be an unexamined synonym for the word compliance. Under which circumstances the “if-then” proposition really reads: If you, student, give me compliance, I, the teacher, will give you something that may fall somewhere on the spectrum of respect, depending how I feel about it.

This, I’m afraid, is at least part of the reason why my student Lyra – a Hurricane Maria-displaced refugee from Puerto Rico – reacted so badly to my trying to use the darn poster to clear up a miscommunication with her which resulted in some stress. The minute I said “I’m trying to be respectful to you here…” she flared up like someone had told her that “respect” was the keycode to detention.

“I am being very respectful,” she said, quietly and angrily, and I realized that this word had a world of disciplinary meaning for her that I had not intended. That it had not opened her up, but completely shut her down.

We got past that moment, but not without some hard work.

The price of teacher respect

Second, a transactional relationship called “respect” can be boiled down to one thing: the student, in one way or other, has to earn – that is, to pay something for – the teacher’s respect. They have to comply, for example (see above), or get good grades, or show “dedication.”

And while this transaction might seem fair on the face of it, what it actually does is reinforce the power and skill imbalance that naturally exists between student and teacher. In other words: why are we making the teacher’s respect of the student dependent upon the mastery of something the student is still learning to do? Or may even be incapable of doing, given circumstances beyond her control?

Juanita, another student of mine, is being raised by a young single mother and is in charge of just about everything her mother is – cooking, cleaning, minding her younger siblings. She is genuinely ADHD, which makes hybrid schooling a nightmare for her. She has never been taught time management or organizational skills in a way she has grasped. And she, like many teens, fights with her mother and stays up too late. A lot.

All of which led to the natural consequence of her not finishing the textual analysis that was due the day before Christmas break and being pulled by me from her classroom holiday party in order to finish it.

Juanita was not happy. She took it out on the nearest adult (me) – swearing, pouting, shoving her materials around on her desk – but still attempted the work, which I am smiling about even now.

If I were operating on the transactional definition of respect on my poster, I would have had every right to stick the kid in a room and leave her there to “work,” flip her onto the disciplinary ladder, give her a stern lecture about choices, and/or be brusque or even snappish with her. Believe me, I was tempted.

But what I ended up doing was sitting with her, reminding her gently that we’d been giving her a lot of help and wiggle room on this assignment, asking her what she needed, empathizing with how crappy the situation was, and then leaving her alone unless she asked me a question. Nothing else.

She finished it – and then apologized. “I don’t mean to be grumpy,” she said.

I don’t believe I would have gotten either the assignment or the apology if I had told her that she needed to “give respect to get respect,” and then walked away.

Respect without conditions

What Juanita and Lyra confirmed for me is not that students need to earn respect in order to get respect. My respectful behavior to them should be, literally, unconditional – whether they swear at me, throw something, or sulk silently.

Why? Because they are children. Because they are at the mercy of their emotions and the circumstances of their lives in a way that adults, ostensibly, are not. Because the best way to teach young people respect is not to make it transactional. It is to show them that they are worthy of respect for no other reason than they exist. It is to show them respect no matter what they do.

When I get back to the classroom on Monday, I’ll be throwing out that poster, I think.

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

2 Responses

  1. Insightful and inspiring as always, Dina! Thanks for reminding us who should be the adult in the room.

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