On my classroom door there’s a sign. It reads: “In my room I want you to feel empowered, connected, respected, valued, challenged and supported. How am I doing?”
Early on I direct the kids’ attention to it, discuss it, and revisit it. But as time gets on, I let it be. I no longer want to bring attention to it; I no longer talk it. I strive to walk it, to embed it, to live it. It is the culture I wish to create in my room. It is the standard that I set for myself as the leader in our classroom community. And as that leader, if I am not living up to my own standard, then I want the kids to let me know, so I may do better out of respect for them, out of respect for myself.
Respect. Yes, it made the list. Seems to always. Twenty three years into the teaching game, it remains among one of my highest expectations for kids. Be respectful. And I am not alone. A quick survey of teachers elementary to high school would likely reveal it–in some form–makes nearly every list for classroom expectations. Respect matters. We need only think of a time when we have either been respected or disrespected to know that it is a critical element in how we connect with others–socially, personally, and professionally. This is true in society. And it is most certainly true in the classroom. No respect. No connection. No connection. No community. No community. No…well, you get the point.
A classroom is a community. Maybe our kids’ first taste of community as the classroom, the school often reflects the broader community. And like the broader community, it is a diverse, complex phenomenon. One that requires connection. One that requires respect.
So, I give it to them. Yes, I to them. I give it to them. I know some cling to the old adage, “Respect is earned, not given,” but why can’t it be given? Why can’t respect be something that we “gift” instead of something that we hold in reserve, granting only to those we deem worthy? We deem worthy. Where does that list begin and end, and what implications might such a list have on our community? My kids come to me in many sizes, shapes, and colors. They come to me with various beliefs, convictions, and values. Such diversity makes for dizzying considerations when it comes to a list, and if I am not careful my own biases become the filter for who’s worthy of my respect. So, I don’t make such a list. I make a different roster. A human roster. Of all the diverse things that my kids bring to the room, they share one thing in common: they are all human. And all humans are worthy of respect. And so I give it. Freely but not blindly.
That which can be given can also be taken away. When we “give” our respect, we create a foundation; we create opportunity, we create possibility. We may not agree with or even “like” the person to whom we gift our respect, but that’s the whole point of respect. It is respect that transcends bias and feeling. It can bridge divides. And as we look out on our broader community that’s become so polarized, so divided, it seems we could benefit from a foundation of respect, rooted in our shared humanity.
And so, it is this foundation that I seek to establish in my classroom community. I blink first. I don’t wait for my kids to earn my respect. And I certainly don’t demand their respect. I wait for them to give it, and once they do, I work earnestly to keep it.
This September, let’s all make an effort to lay a foundation of respect. Of course, not all foundations will go on to become strong structures, but some will–perhaps in ways we never imagined. So let’s build. Respect. Connections. Community. Humanity.
Monte Syrie is an English teacher at Cheney High School and an adjunct professor in the Education Department at EWU. He operates a daily blog that provides a glimpse into his classroom community at www.letschangeeducation.com. He also founded and coordinates Project Feed Forward, a program built on the belief that kindness feeds kindness.