Discipline issues are the biggest barrier to a school-wide focus on teaching and learning.
Sometimes as teachers we forget that our job is not only to provide the opportunity and information to learn–it is also our job to provide a safe and positive school and learning environment where learning may take place. Most of us are quick to stop outright aggressive behavior or violent talk, but far too often the more mild disrespectful and sarcastic comments are allowed to go unchallenged.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are behavioral models for all students. If we allow or ignore disrespectful comments between students, regardless of how mild, we are sending the message that these types of comments are acceptable. Our ignoring or refraining from commenting upon these comments actually reinforces this behavior, increasing the likelihood that such comments will continue to be made. As teachers, we can’t control what happens in a student’s life at home, at work, or even in the hallway–but we can control what happens in our classrooms (Beamon, 2001; Daniel and Benton, 1995).
As educators, it is our job to insure that all students are treated with basic respect while in our classroom and in our presence. According to Valerio (2001), a classroom is a “theatrical stage” that must be designed in advance to make students feel comfortable with their instructor, peers, and environment. How we structure our classrooms and what types of behaviors and conversations we allow has a significant impact on the perceived safety of our classroom.
It is important to keep in mind that safety and trust are determined individually by each student in the classroom. Although we may believe our classrooms are safe and each student feels he/she can take risks in the academic and social environment, this may not be the case. Our students may be physically safe, but if basic respect is not mandated in our classrooms, then many of our students will feel emotionally unsafe, which will negatively impact social and academic growth.
When students enter the classroom, they are bringing with them years of experiences and issues from the outside world. They have interacted with each other on many levels outside of school. Along with these outside interactions come deep-seated feelings about certain classmates. Regardless of whether these feelings are warranted, it is unlikely that we can change them. What we can change is the behaviors students change in response to those feelings. It is our responsibility to ensure that our students give one another basic respect.
Basic respect should be a bottom-line requirement for all individuals, adults and students alike, who enter our classroom. Students do not have to like everyone in the class, but they should be required to give basic respect to everyone. Let me say that one more time. You (students, teachers, aides, administrators, parents, etc.) don’t have to like everyone in the classroom, but you will afford them basic respect at all times. This statement should be the mantra in all classroom settings nationwide.
It is always wise to begin each school year with a classroom discussion about the rules and rituals that will be followed for the year. Many of the classroom rules and rituals should be developed by and in cooperation with the students so there is a feeling of ownership, but not all rules should be negotiable. Classroom safety and basic respect should not be negotiated, and it should be made very clear that violation of these two bottom-line rules will not be tolerated. Students need to know that rude, sarcastic, threatening, mean-spirited, or negative comments, whether said in jest or not, will be met with consequences.
Due to today’s media, many students have learned to use sarcasm as a form of communication and humor. Sarcastic humor is one of the most sophisticated forms of humor and most students and adults do have the social and emotional skills to use this form of humor correctly. Many individuals use sarcastic humor to veil threats, belittle others, point out flaws, or improve their position in a social group, all under the guise of humor. To allow such “humor” in our classroom sets a dangerous precedent. It sends students the message that they cannot be openly disrespectful, but they may be covertly disrespectful if they cloak their comments with sarcastic humor.
Since many of our students have never been taught what basic respect is and how to give it, how do we help them understand this concept? A simple method is to make this part of the rules and rituals discussion at the beginning of the school year (or each new term if classes change). Have the students name some of the individuals they admire and would treat with the utmost respect. Remind them that you are not asking them who they idolize (rock stars, sports figures, movie stars), but whom they admire and would give the utmost respect to in all situations. The list might include judges, grandparents, priests, bosses, and military personnel. Then tell the class that any comment not fit to be made to one of these respected individuals should not be made to another person in or out of the classroom.
There is a high likelihood that not all faculty will hold their students to this high standard, and this will make your job that much more difficult. Obviously, if this were a school-wide policy, students would learn to be respectful in all school situations. The fact that it will not be enforced by all faculty should not deter you from requiring basic respect in your classroom and in your presence. If as teachers we hold firm to the basic respect rule, our students will feel safer, and that feeling of physical and emotional safety will afford them the learning environment that will maximize learning and positive academic outcomes.