Respect This

New teachers in the inner city always ask themselves the simple question, “Why won’t my kids respect me?” They wonder why the kid won’t just sit down and shut up when they say “Please sit down and be quiet”. In trainings we learn about the meaning of respect, and Teach for America among other teaching programs emphasizes the need for respect in our classroom. Teachers need to respect students and students need to respect their teachers. In addition, we need to respect families and communities. Inherent within this need for respect is an understanding of what respect is, and it seems to me that we often miss out on the process of defining respect and the need for respect.

In this blog, we wrote a daily aim regarding what to say if a student says that you don’t respect them. In essence, we pointed out that you shouldn’t allow that kind of talk in your classroom and respond with a rhetorical question. For example, “Why should I respect someone who doesn’t respect themselves enough to put the minimal effort into passing my class and graduating high school?” Essentially within this ideal, we do not emphasize that a teacher should disrespect their students, but rather emphasize that students should respect themselves first. In reflecting on respect, I think that further investigation is needed into how meaning for the word is created in different worlds.

Growing up, my knowledge of respect came from two sources: my elders and nature. Over the course of my life I came to respect my elders because I felt that I had something to learn from them. My grandfathers both served in World War II and then attended college and found good jobs. My mother and father both graduated college and held professional positions. I saw that they had found success in life, and that they must know something in order to achieve that success. I listened to my teachers, mentors, and bosses because I wanted to go down a path in life that allowed me to choose what I wanted to do with my life. Eventually I would challenge these individuals and ask difficult questions, but always with respect in mind.

Nature taught me many important lessons. I grew up in the Northwest, where the wild still exists. From a very young age I started to go to the mountain, and my home mountain soon became Mt. Hood. I learned a great deal about respect from Mt. Hood. Hood is a favorite recreation spot for many providing year-round skiing and climbing in the summer. Every year a story arises about climbers or skiers dying on Mt. Hood because they did not respect the mountain. They thought it would be safe, or that they were good enough. Unfortunately for many individuals they were wrong. I also spent time camping in the woods and lakes of Oregon. From there I learned what nature could provide if you show it respect. Finally, I learned from the Pacific Ocean. If you go to the Oregon coast, you learn that sneaker waves and riptides can make a quick end to your fun at the beach. All in all, I guess that I learned the consequences of not being mindful of your own abilities and respecting the things around you.  To see this in action, watch the clip below.

Our students also learn about respect from their elders. In many instances, it seems that their experience is very different from mine. An image that I may never be rid of comes from recent weeks following a large fight at our school. We called all the parents of the students involved and asked that they come pick their students up at school. The students were separated into different rooms, including one student in the principal’s office. This student’s mother came in while I was doing some work in the office. I was speaking with our principal and then we heard two loud thuds from her office followed by a barrage of cursing. We were forced to call security and escort the mother away from her son. In this instance, the student had to show respect to his mother, lest she curses him out and possibly beats the tar out of him. In our classes, we tell students to respect us or we’ll make them climb up the consequence ladder. This seems very different from a world were respect is given because the child sees a value in what the elders do.

Absent from an inner-city student’s experience are the lessons from nature. I think that this is important. In reading my initial thoughts about respect for the mountain, it sounds a great deal like fear. But if it were fear, I would not have gone back to the mountain. I went to the mountain, learned the respect along with other lessons, and continued to go back. That I believe is the difference between fear and respect: a desire to return. Many students do not wish to return home because they fear their parents. Many students do not wish to go to certain classes because they fear the consequences. If they respect those places, they come back time and time again to learn new lessons.

In my classroom, I try to foster an environment of respect. I try to create a place where students sit and listen out of a desire to learn something. However, as teachers we always fight the battle with the streets. The streets tell the students that there is not value in that type of learning, and that respect is closer to fear.

If I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do is start a non-profit providing low-cost to no-cost outdoor trips for students in the inner city. We have a great deal to learn from nature, but respect could prove to be the most important lesson that we can gain from the wild.

–John Harlow


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