Not if I can disrespect you first! : My Middle School Experiment, What I Learned, Part 3

How often do you often run into disrespect?

And how do you feel when you do run into disrespect? How do you act?

Our principal at my middle school this last semester wisely emphasized every day that we all should treat each other with respect – students, teachers, staff, administrators, everyone – should treat each other with respect. And he emphasized to parents and guardians that their children would be treated with respect.

It was a daily message.

It’s a message I’ve always emphasized in my classes, from the many years when I taught high school to this last middle school semester.

But it hasn’t been until my reflection time this summer – after my 90 days in a high-poverty middle school classroom – that I really have realized how important respect is.

Respect is important for all of us . . .  but it’s especially important for people who live in poverty.

Disrespect was one of my major concerns when I had community members come talk to my classes about their careers and life choices.

Because my experience with teaching students from poverty was that they are very often disrespectful.

That is one of the most difficult and trying challenges of teaching in a high-poverty school. Dealing with the disrespect you so often encounter.

Dealing with a lack of politeness, a lack of consideration for your authority, a lack of consideration for your feelings, even.

I knew this tendency of my students toward disrespect would be one of the big challenges of my semester.

That challenge would affect me personally, and it would affect my having speakers come talk with my classes. Because this was a careers class, I wanted to have people from a variety of careers talk with my students.

But having community members come into your classroom can be precarious feeling.

Because you don’t know how your students will act.

IMG_9989So I talked with my students about treating speakers – treating anyone who came into our school – with respect. I talked about what that looked like. How you should pay attention and not talk while the speaker was talking. How you should sit up and not put your head on the table or prop your legs up in the chair next to you. How you should raise your hand and politely ask questions that were about the speaker’s topic. How you should thank the speaker for coming to our class.

Before we had any speakers from the community, our principal came to my classes and talked with them about these very behaviors.

My students also heard the respect message every day during announcements.

And usually, my students did well and were respectful of our speakers.

But sometimes they weren’t.

More often it was more minor disrespect, as when they whispered to each other while our speaker was talking or when they asked odd or inappropriate or off-topic questions.

But sometimes the disrespect was more blatant.

The worst was the time we had a fairly high-profile speaker talking with a combination of two classes, and one grade level group of students got rowdy. The speaker completely stopped speaking because the students were so talkative. That got the students’ attention, and they got quiet. He told them that he didn’t have to be there.

And the most openly confrontational and disrespectful of my students said. “Well, why don’t you leave?”

I was mortified. It was exactly what I was afraid of happening. A student actively disrespecting a guest at our school.

My biggest fear had happened.

Even though I had been actively walking around the room giving the evil eye to students who weren’t engaged or sitting appropriately.

Even though I had been speaking quietly to ones who were talking or starting to become a problem.

Even though all that, the group got out of control.

We teachers feel like failures when that happens.

Long story short, that group of students did settle down, and the speaker did finish his talk without walking out. And he even offered to return next year.

But that incident and my mortification at the disrespect my students showed turned into my reflecting about the incident.

I thought about why I wanted my students to be on their best behavior.

I wanted them to make a good impression.

I wanted every speaker to leave thinking (and even telling others in the community), “That school has great kids! They’re very respectful and engaged. You’d never know so many of them come from poverty.”

That’s what I wanted.

But it’s not what I always got.

And maybe that’s not so bad.

What if the best scenario was for my speakers to see my students as they really are?  To get a taste of the challenges in a high-poverty school?

And what if we can all learn from that –  to look at why these kids are disrespectful?

I think these kids are disrespectful because these their lives have taught them that they’re going to be treated disrespectfully.

Disrespect is what they’ve experienced time and time again. That’s how they’ve seen their parents, guardians, relatives, and neighbors be treated.

With disrespect.

So they figure, “I’m going to disrespect you before you can disrespect me!”

At least that way they have a little bit of power.

Not for long, though, because usually some kind of punishment follows.

Think about it. If you live in poverty, often people refer to you as “trash” or “sorry” or some other derogatory term. And if they don’t say that out loud to you, you can see in in their eyes and in how they treat you.

Middle class and upper class people don’t have to worry about being treated disrespectfully very often.

They aren’t seen as worthless.

When they are treated disrespectfully, they are incensed. And they usually have a recourse to respond to the disrespect.

But people in poverty get treated disrespectfully often. Perhaps almost daily.

How would you respond if this were your life?

I was talking with one of my classes about having community members come to help them practice being interviewed, and one of my students said, “If they disrespect me, I’m gonna disrespect them right back!”

I didn’t quite know how to respond. I knew that no one would come to my classroom and treat my students with disrespect.

My knee-jerk reaction was to be dismissive of his perspective. I mean, why would he think that someone I brought into my classroom would disrespect my students??

But I eventually realized . . . he thought that because that’s what his experiences have showed him.

He learned that you’d better show disrespect first or at least in response, because that’s what you’re going to get. Disrespect.

He thought you’re going to be disrespected at some point – no matter what.

So many of my students choose the strategy of being disrespectful before they can be disrespected. At least that way they have a little bit of power (before the boom drops, and they’re punished in some way).  At least then they aren’t sniveling the whole way, being pushed around. At least that way, they can have some pride.

That’s what my students are tying to do when they’re disrespectful – have a litte bit of power in a life that is mostly powerless.

And one of the few ways they’ve seen people be powerful is when they’re angry, when they’re lashing out, when they’re striking first. When they’re being what we call “disrespectful.”

When you’re on the bottom of the heap, when you have little to no power, you try to find some power wherever you can.

And often acting disrespectfully feels powerful. At least you weren’t acting like a victim. Which is actually what you are in this life.

A victim at the bottom of our society’s hierarchy. A victim with many obstacles and few breaks.

That’s what my students don’t want to feel.

And so they lash out.

And that lashing out feels like disrespect to the ones on the receiving end.

But on the giving end it feel like a little bit of power in a life that is basically powerless.

I’m not saying it’s okay to be disrespectful.

It’s not.

But I think that’s why students in poverty are so often disrespectful.

That’s another lesson, a daily one, we have to teach in our public schools.

The lesson that treating others with respect is ultimately more effective. That it is ultimately more powerful. Even when it doesn’t feel that way.

Even when you too seldom receive it.

That’s one thing our school did (and does) that’s really right.

Emphasizing respect.

For everyone at all times.

Our whole society would benefit from practicing respect – from our politicians to our corporate leaders to our religious leaders to those using social media to every single member of our society.

Treating others with respect is the best choice.

And it ultimately has the best outcome.

That’s a lesson that’s hard for us teachers to get across to our students who live in poverty, those who are so often powerless.

So what we have to do is model respect.

Even when our students are disrespectful to us.

Especially then.

Because it might be one of the few times that they themselves get to experience being treated with respect.

And then they can feel what it’s like to be respected even when their behaviors aren’t respectful.

That can have far-reaching effects.

For us all.

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