I remember distinctly the first time I took over a class as a student teacher. I was excited and extremely nervous. I was dressed in my slightly too-tight dress shirt and my awkwardly-tied tie, as I stood at the front of the room like a child about to lecture to a small circle of stuffed animals.
“OK, everyone,” I said. “Take out a piece of paper, and write down all the words you aren’t sure you know the meaning of from the short story you read for today.”
And then something magical happened. They did it!
I watched, awed, as a classroom of 24 students quietly obeyed my instructions. “They’re doing it!” I screamed in the loudest voice I could muster in my head.
My experience wasn’t unique. In most cases, students will comply with a new teacher simply because they know they are expected to, and students intuitively understand that school is an agreement, a social compact, between them and the teachers and staff to do what they are told.
However, students will only give a teacher a certain amount of leeway–or a honeymoon–before they begin to expect the teacher to keep their part of the unspoken bargain. And if teachers break that bargain, it takes a long, long time to develop the trust and goodwill needed for that agreement to rise again.
What Do Some Teachers Do Wrong?
Some people think that they can get respect by demanding it. That doesn’t work, at least not in the short term.
The military and prison systems work by demanding respect. And, they have severe punishments, both physical and psychological, at their disposal should the superiors choose to use them.
In the most effective military cases, new recruits are forced into compliance, sometimes brutally. As they comply, over time, and experience carefully delivered doses of fear and sleep deprivation, they eventually come to see the real value of compliance for being a member of a well-organized, seamlessly effective machine. I’m no military expert, but I can see the structural advantages of a compliant military. (As long as their leaders are ultimately compliant to the US Constitution–a nod to our present times.) It’s possible, even likely, that a soldier’s compliance eventually turns into genuine respect. I know many members of the military who exhibit genuine respect for their work and the work of their superiors.
Some teachers think they, too, can earn students’ respect by demanding it. And the system will back them. In virtually all cases, if a teacher demands respect and uses the full-force of their authority to get it, they will eventually win almost all students’ compliance. That is, students will do what they are told. The LETTER of what they are told and nothing more. Compliance is not respect. Respect isn’t even in the same building as compliance. Furthermore, schooling is supposed to be about creating critical thinkers and citizens, not a compliant workforce, right?
Yelling, demanding, punishing, humiliating, passive aggression. These are the tools of teachers who want to demand respect. They lead to compliance only, which does not result in effective learning. These classrooms are a failure. Period. These tactics have no place in the classroom of a teacher who wishes to earn respect. For a phenomenal read on exactly this topic, see Dr. Alfie Kohn’s Beyond Discipline.
3 Things You Can Do Right!
- Be Confident.
It’s hard to be confident when you are new. But it can be done. You are not yet an expert and you are probably not yet comfortable with your authority. (My inner-shouting at the beginning of this blog was really about my own lack of comfort.) This is all ok.
You can and should be confident that as a new teacher, you will make mistakes and get things wrong, and that’s not only okay, it’s desirable. It is our mistakes that make us learn. The more mistakes you make, the faster and more you learn. Design Thinking theorists call this “failing forward.” Failing Forward applies to teaching as well.
The point is not to let mistakes derail your confidence. Denying the mistake, being so embarrassed that you get angry, or lying to cover a mistake up all lead to insecurity (fear), which eventually leads to the dead-end road of demanding respect. (It’s the path to the Dark Side.)
When you make a mistake–any visible mistake–make a quick apology, if the students notice it, and move on. Teachers are human and they make mistakes. It’s expected. If the students laugh at you for a moment, laugh with them and move on. If they are angry at you, tell them they are right and apologize, and move on. If the mistake ruins an assignment or a lesson, acknowledge it and move on to something else. (And, of course, always have a back-up activity ready for when this happens–it will happen!)
A teacher who demands compliance looks insecure–because they are insecure. A teacher who deserves respect is secure enough to acknowledge mistakes and make amends as necessary. The very dull old saw, “Don’t smile till Christmas,” is the worst possible advice a new teacher could take. It’s a recipe for angry compliance at best, outright rebellion and getting fired (rightly so) at worst.
- Work hard to LIKE your students, and let them see that in many ways.
Liking students–genuinely liking them for who they are and what they want–is the only way to earn respect from students. This doesn’t mean lowering appropriate boundaries. Don’t interfere with your students’ social circles or get invasive about their personal lives.
Instead, it means that you should engage students in genuine conversations about the content you’re teaching and you should visibly and audibly appreciate what they think and what they say.
“That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. How did you think of that?”
“That’s a great follow-up on X’s comment. X, what do you think of Y’s follow-up?”
“Wow, this is a really smart class. I feel like I’m not only teaching you, but that I’m also LEARNING WITH you.”
Comments like the three above are tools used by teachers who want to earn respect. One important caveat: You have to SINCERELY MEAN what you say about what you like. Students smell bullshit in the classroom better than sharks smell blood in the water. So it’s very important that a teacher create assignments through which students will say and write things that a teacher can genuinely appreciate. That means OPINION questions and assignments connected to students’ PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. Not just content recall questions–despite what proponents of the pro-profit Common Core Curriculum and billionaire standardized testers say.
- Be the Leader. You Run the Room.
Earning respect does NOT mean giving up control. It does mean respecting and liking students as intellectual and human equals; but don’t forget that you are the one responsible for student learning. Period. Let that role ramp-up your resolve and stiffen your spine.
“Hey guys, this is fun, but I need us to get back to the assignment.”
“OMG, that is just too much. You are really a character [said with affection]. But I’m getting paid to keep you all learning. Let’s get back on task, please.”
“Is this boring you? Let me think about how I can make this better for tomorrow. Let me know if you have any ideas that you think will help. But for now, we’ve got to keep working on this.”
The comments above show respect, humanity, and authority. Most students will respond to this kind of approach. When students don’t respond positively, there is usually a reason, and it’s your job as a teacher to find out what that is or if the student is not ok for some reason.
This Gets Easier
Being the kind of teacher who earns respect from students gets easier and easier as you do it.
Your confidence will grow, making you more secure, and thus better able to take hiccups in stride without letting them rattle you in front of your students. Students will begin to trust that you are really there for their best interests, and with their trust their respect for you will blossom.
And, if you do have a serious problem, you’ll find that other students will come to your aid in the classroom. I’ve had students tell other students to, “Shut up and let him teach!” more than once. (The best way to respond to those students is with a quick, silent smile of thanks and then a verbal thank you after class, away from the ears of other students.)
Teaching is exhausting, especially in these times when teachers are expected to do way, way more than is possible, never mind reasonable. But working with young people in an atmosphere of mutual respect is an exhilarating joy. Savor every moment of it!