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The problem with respect

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

Can we talk about respect for a minute? Because as we are all heading back into the fray with the new school year, I am visiting schools and classrooms where teachers and administrators are busy putting up all the new signs and bulletin boards and printing out the new handbooks and planners and just like every other year, I am seeing this word everywhere. “Be Respectful.”

I mean that’s what we want our kids to do, right? Respect us, respect each other, respect school property, play respectfully, talk respectfully, walk respectfully...right?

Yeah, sure. But do they really know what you mean when you say, “Be Respectful?”

"Come on, Jen. Kids know what that word means. And if they don’t know, they should."


Not necessarily.

Here’s the thing. This word is squishy. It’s slippery. It’s wildly subjective. In my own household, the word “respect” means different things to my husband than it does to me. And I would be willing to bet that this word means something different to every single person alive. I mean, sure, we can all get together on the basic idea that respect means being “nice” or “polite” or honoring someone with actions or words. But when I ask people to tell me what respect actually looks like, --as in give me a concrete, observable, teachable behavior that is “respectful,” I get a vast variety of answers.

Let me give you an example from my own life.

In my small-town, white, Minnesota farm family, one example of what respect looks like is taking turns when people are talking. This is largely true for most of my family (unless there is beer involved--then things get a little looser). Essentially, when someone is in the middle of a sentence or thought, you wait until they are done and then you take your turn. The exchange is crisp and orderly--you talk, I talk, you talk, I talk before you finish--oops, I apologize, you finish your thought, then I talk, etc. Woe to you if the person you are talking to is long-winded. Take a seat, settle in and prepare to wait indefinitely.

Now, in my husband’s family, things are a little bit more fluid. I talk, you get excited, you add something while I am talking and I agree and we both talk at the same time and then we laugh and you talk and I listen and then I add and we both talk and there are no crisp, clean breaks. We are sharing the moments in a fluid manner. This type of communication actually has a name: overlapping. My husband’s family is skilled in this type of communication. There are often multiple people talking at once when his family is together (whether the beer has started flowing or not).

Both of these types of communication are considered respectful to our different families. In my turn-taking family, overlapping is seen as “interrupting” and in his overlapping family, sitting quietly and waiting for a pause can sometimes be seen as being cold and disengaged.

When I first started teaching, I wasn’t really conscious of the fact that I came from a turn-taking culture. Like a lot of folks who come from a place of privilege, I assumed that the way I communicated was “the norm” and I expected that in a classroom, students would know and understand that taking turns, raising your hand to speak, not “interrupting” others is “respectful.” Imagine the cognitive dissonance I felt, then, when I started teaching in a setting where the majority of my students came from a culture that values overlapping.

I was frustrated at first. My students talked over each other during discussions. They asked me questions when I was in the middle of explaining things. They stopped me during readings to point things out in the text and once one person pointed something out, others joined in and before long, several people were talking at once. I felt overwhelmed and a little afraid that I was somehow losing control. This feeling was coming from the fact that there was a cultural mismatch between my idea of respect and my students’. If you were to ask them, they would tell you they were being respectful. And that’s true. They were. Once I stopped to listen to my students, really listen, I realized they were talking about the learning, they were asking questions and sharing ideas. They were engaged. Engaged students! This is what I wanted, wasn’t it? So why was I feeling so anxious?

It took some close self-reflection and some conversations with colleagues who were far more enlightened than I was to figure out where the dissonance was coming from. I had to acknowledge my own cultural biases. I had to re-evaluate my ideas about turn-taking and "interrupting" vs. overlapping. Most importantly, I had to examine what it means to be truly “culturally responsive.” If I was being responsive, I had to consider my students' culture. I had to ask myself: Do my student always has to take turns to talk? Are there times when it is valuable to take turns and times where it is valuable to overlap? Could I put aside my own biases and cultural norms to make room for theirs? Could there be a middle ground?

I started by sharing this with my students. We had a conversation about what that squishy, subjective word--respect--looks like. They shared their ideas. I shared mine. We spent some time talking about how to merge our cultural ideas of respect into our class norms. We spent some time defining when we would take turns (for example during seminars, or during talking circles, or when someone was presenting) and when we would be able to overlap (during class discussions, during small group discussions and partner activities).

National speaker, author, and all-around culturally responsive teaching guru, Dr. Sharroky Hollie, calls this responsive technique VABBing.: Validate, Affirm, Build a Bridge. We validate and affirm the experiences and cultural norms of our students. Then we build a bridge so that we can teach them what we are looking for in the classroom setting. For me, these conversations were revolutionary. They caused me to step back and re-examine my entire way of operating. Where else were there mismatches? Where else was I making assumptions about my students’ cultures? Where else did I need to do some reflecting and make some changes in standard operating procedures?

And so I unpacked “respect” every single year, with every single class. And I am telling you--if you think that all students know what you mean when you say that word, I challenge you to ask them to share their ideas.

I found out that turn-taking/overlapping is not the only cultural mismatch in my classroom. When it came to respect, my students had different ideas about eye contact, personal space, what constitutes “cheating” versus helping the communal whole succeed, how one earns respect, and more. I only found this out because I put aside my own ideas and asked for theirs.

Here’s a challenge. Grab a pen and make a list. Answer the question: What is "respect?" More specifically, what does it look like, sound like and feel like to be respectful:

During class discussion?

During a test?

At the beginning of the class?

During group work?

During direction instruction?

During transitions?

When you are leaving the classroom?

Think larger. What does it look like, sound like and feel like to be respectful:

In the hallway?

In the lunchroom?

In the media center?

When you are entering the building?

When you are watching a concert in the auditorium?

When you are at a school pride assembly or pep fest?

Spend some time defining your ideas about respect. Write down concrete, observable, teachable behaviors. Have those ideas ready to go.

Then: ask your students! Seriously. No matter how old they are. Any student, any age, can engage in a conversation about “respect.” Ask them what it means to them. Try to guide them toward defining respect with concrete, observable behaviors.

Now, compare. Where are the mismatches? Where can you change your standard operating procedure to better match your students’ cultures? Where can you build bridges and teach students what you are looking for? How can you make this word--this big, squishy, slippery word, more tangible?

Because that, my friends, is what responsive teaching looks like!


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