How to Teach Respect

It is the rare adult that intentionally uses strategies to explicitly show respect to others.  Our students are learning a lot of things, not just math, and respect has to be one of them.

Last week I wrote about how to teach responsibility.  The quick version: give and expect responsibility.  This week, respect.  The quick version: give and expect respect!

In both cases, it’s harder than it seems, which is my best excuse for writing pages and pages about it.  This post will focus on tangible ways to increase the level of respect in your classroom right now.  I write as a teacher of high school students at a private boarding school and as a director of a summer camp with 25 staff and 150 campers – two places where respect is vital to my mission.  I do not work at a school with a single student who would cuss me out in the middle of class, though I have been called some names and broken up a (singular) fight in the last five years.

Easy Ways to Give Respect

  • Please say “please” when you ask someone to do something, and thank them after they do it. I direct a summer camp and this is almost a mantra I try to repeat with the counselors.  We make little kids do say “please,” right?  As adults, we sort of forget to do it, or understand that we’re all comrades and forgo the explicit “please” to… save time?  Anyway, saying “please” and “thank you” is probably the easiest way to show your respect for someone.  “Take your homework out” becomes “Please take your homework out,” an expectant pause while they do it, and then “Thank you.”
  • Say “Thank you” when you’re thankful for something.  For extra power, name explicitly that for which you’re thankful.  “Thanks for being prompt, everyone” or “thanks for getting so into this material, guys, it makes my job really fun!”  This has the top-secret side-effect of making it easier to give negative feedback when you need to do that.
  • Let them know how you’re feeling. You have to trust them before you can do this one, but once you do, it really shows them that, uh, you trust them.  “When you guys get into discussing a concept so thoroughly it makes my job fun because the concepts are my favorite part!”  If they understand that you have favorite parts, bad days, pet peeves, and personal triumphs (“I’m really proud of this lesson plan”), they will all but have to respect you.  You trust them and you are a person and you are telling them all the ways you are trying to help them.  How could anyone resist?

Already, with this easy stuff, you are implicitly creating and reinforcing a culture of respect.  There’s deeper respect than adding a few words to your diction, though.

Hard Ways to Give Respect

  • Make the schedule of your class clear, and stick to it. If you say you’ll hand back graded work the next day, please actually do it.  If you say there will be a test every Friday, please be ready to give one every Friday, and if you say your office hours will be at 7:30 on Thursdays, don’t change that at the last minute.  If you do need to change the schedule, please show respect in that as well, by announcing the change as soon as possible ahead of time.  If you change things up all the time, take variable amounts of time to grade work, and are inconsistent with your schedule, please do not expect the students to have their work done when you want it to be, or for them to even show up to class on time!
  • Find ways to make students part of their own assessment. If you can trust a student to be his own judge (in any part), he will see that you respect him and his time.  You’re saying, “hey, I’m getting paid, and you’re required to be here by law.  I think you should have some say in what goes on here.”  If you can find a way to let students guide the class as a whole, that’s even better.  “You’ll go to jail if you leave (or whatever happens), but while you’re here, I want to do my best to make this interesting and enriching from your point of view.”
  • Tell students what you’re trying to do with the class. Just tell them everything.  This was hard for me in some sort of ego way I can’t describe.
    • Apologize when you waste a student’s time. The obvious corollary is Try Not To Waste Students’ Time, but you’ll fail in that for at least some kids (sorry, I’m a pessimist I guess).  When you do give a stupid assignment or are unprepared for a lesson plan (not that I’ve ever been unprepared!) just apologize for it.
    • State the objectives of your lesson. It’s OK if they know your plan.  Bill Ferriter, a NC county teacher of the year, explains why the pedagogy is good.  But it also just shows your students that you want them involved in the process.  You think they’re smart enough to be in the know.
    • State everything else. “I was hoping you would do xyz.”  “I never thought of that!”  “It’s frustrating to me that you won’t focus on this.”  “Today we’re going to try something that I’m a little worried about” (and then all the reasons you think it’ll be great, of course).

These harder things to do are hard for me because I can’t remember to do them all the time.  Some of them are a lot of work and some of them just don’t occur to me naturally.  Why do the students need to know what’s going to happen – they’re about to find out!  But intentionally striving to express your respect is worth some extra work to me, and, I’m not kidding you guys, I’ve seen these methods improve my classroom and camp culture dramatically.  Please try these out!

Explicitly Appreciate Respect You Receive

All the same reasons, and all the same benefits.  “I appreciate you letting me know that you’ll have to miss a class next week,” “thanks for getting back to me about this,” “thanks for waiting so patiently while I answered Sarah’s question,” “it was so nice of you to think of this!”

Don’t Accept Disrespect

Frankly, I have much less experience with this than some other teachers at my school.  I don’t know if my methods of fostering respect are just SO GOOD, or that I mostly teach older students, or what, but I don’t get a lot of disrespect directly.  More often one student will disrespect another in some way.  Whether I get it or a student gets it, I address it directly and immediately by saying briefly something like “that was disrespectful, and disrespect has no place in our school.”  I’m serious when I say this.  I’ve got a controlled anger in my voice even for such a small infraction as “shut up” (“shut up” usually gets said exactly once per year in each of my courses).  I ask the students involved to (please) find a respectful way to express whatever they want to communicate.

This is a high priority for me and I will stop a lesson to talk about respect even when we’re a week behind my original schedule (“sorry class, we have to change the schedule because I made unrealistic estimates/you guys aren’t in to it/you guys are so into it”).

I hope you’ll give some of this a try.  I bet all of you think of your students with respect, and I’m sure almost all of you treat your students with respect.  It is the rare adult, though, that intentionally uses strategies to explicitly show respect to others.  Our students are learning a lot of things, not just math, and respect has to be one of them.  Please audit your own communication methods and see if there are any ways you can build more respect into them!

2 thoughts on “How to Teach Respect”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I taught in a very different environment, but your principles certainly hold true. I especially want to second your point about explicitly articulating your thought processes, because it makes such a difference for students to know why you’re making the choices that you’re making and why you’re asking them to do the work that you are. For example, an extra assignment might feel like punishment or a meaningless display of authority to some students, but it could also be explained as “you all struggled on this part of the test and because I care about your learning and I know you care about your learning, I wanted to give you some help and some extra practice– but not on the things that you have already shown me you’ve mastered.”

    Voicing my thoughts also helped with issues that could be interpreted as blatant disrespect; “, I’m hurt that you chose to because we agreed at the beginning of the year that we needed a safe and welcoming classroom in order to all be at our best, and I know that you have been working really hard to all year. Can you help me understand why you made that decision, and how I can help you in the future?” was way more effective at disarming anger/frustration than any statement of “you broke the rules and here are the consequences.”

    The strategies you described, when used consistently, build student trust and their awareness of what a professional relationship should look like, and is such an important model for students to have. It’s a lot to ask of teachers and certainly isn’t always easy– thanks for bringing this issue to our attention.

  2. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! I am not sure that I could right enough. I stumbled upon your blog last night from a couple other math blogs I follow, and it is one that I am going to look at whenever I have the time. I say ‘whenever I have the time’ because I am in my third school in as many years (budget cuts) and it is the hardest job I have ever had and I can barely keep my head above water.

    But thank you for posting this. I was having a really bad day yesterday (and I wasn’t even in the classroom…4 day week) and second guessing my ability and choice to be in the classroom. I am a career change math teacher, coming from engineering. I am a women who speaks her mind and believes this should carry over to the classroom (with respect).

    I ended my day THursday with a conversation on the phone with a parent. This parent was telling me what I ‘HAD’ to do in my classroom to make sure that their children understood, and that they weren’t understanding so I must ‘NOT’ be doing these things that I ‘MUST’ to do. This parent also shared with me that I shouldn’t tell students that I don’t grade every HW problem because that just gives them the message that HW isn’t important. Although I have stressed to the students (like many teachers) that HW is for practice, and you shouldn’t be graded on practice.

    I do not do SBG (yet). I struggle with this whole ‘you have to follow standards’ but we aren’t checking if they truly meet those standards. I am having a hard time just getting the content down (teaching Geometry for the first time, when I have taught pre-algebra & 7th grade math in the past) without having to put something else on plate that I don’t HAVE to do yet. Although I believe in SBG and hope that if I am in this position next year that I can bring a little in.

    So I guess what I am trying to say is, why shouldn’t I share with my students that Logic & Reason should be taught first (I don’t think it is taught enough in other math disciplines) before starting into the ‘Tools of Geometry’? Why shouldn’t I share that not every HW problem is graded (I do spot check to see if students are doing HW, but it is only 10% of their overall grade)? These were the questions that were bothering me yesterday. Then I read your blog post!

    I hope I haven’t misinterpreted your post. Please let me know if I have. But you have helped me answer those questions and start believing again that I can do this.

    I read a response by a reader of Miss Calculates’s blog, she said “THis year you only have to get half way to perfection…” This is my new mantra.

    THANK YOU!!!!

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