Veteran teachers often complain that there's less respect in the classroom today than there used to be. As a veteran myself, I have to agree. The teacher is no longer an automatic authority figure. Newer teachers—most of whom are of a younger generation—don't share that nostalgia for the way things used to be. But whether or not today's students are less reverent of authority, the fact is that teachers must still find a way to command respect. The key to it all? You have to give it to get it.
Has Respect Really Declined?
It's unclear if students actually respect teachers less than they used to, but people certainly perceive it that way. A recent poll asked more than 2,000 adults to compare their own school experiences with their perceptions of schools today. Almost 80 percent of respondents agreed that when they were in school, students respected teachers, but only 31 percent thought that was true today. Over 90 percent of respondents said that when they were in school, parents respected teachers, but only 49 percent said that was true today.
Further reading: Authority in the Classroom
Of course, it's possible that people remember their own school experiences with a bit of nostalgia, and not all schools are the same, so it's hard to tell whether or not kids today really are different than they were in the past. Either way, teachers who treat students fairly and kindly will always command respect in the classroom.
How to Earn Kids' Respect
According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia, respect is reciprocal. "I know many teachers who seek respect and don't quite get it," she wrote in an ASCD Educational Leadership article. She argues that only teachers who show that they respect their students get respect in return.
Tomlinson says that respecting kids includes attention, consideration, concern, and appreciation. "Young people are dignified and strengthened by adult respect," she wrote. "The absence of such respect is corrosive."
Jonathan Cohen, president of the National School Climate Center, says that respect means being taken seriously. Acting respectfully shows that you appreciate another person or group. One student Cohen spoke with described a respectful school environment, saying, "They actually listen to me here. The teachers care about what I think and feel. They want me to be part of making this school even better."
Working to earn students' respect isn't always easy, and some kids may enter your classroom with chips on their shoulders, already expecting that their teachers won't like them. But as one new local teacher told me, "I just kept at it. I even shared my lunch one day with one of the kids who really gave me a hard time. And you know what? That consistency paid off. The first couple of months were tough, but we rounded the corner last year around November and the rest of the year was great."
Millennials and Respect
For some young millennial teachers, respect in the classroom is less of an issue than respect more generally for their work. For example, Morgan Knight Hermann, a teacher who left the classroom after only one year, insists that kids were the "bright spot" of teaching. "The reason I couldn't stay in the only profession I ever wanted was the negative culture and lack of respect for teachers," she wrote.
"Speaking as a millennial," she added, "we want to feel as though we are contributing meaningfully to society." Hermann cites a lack of supplies, an unsupportive administration, and feeling overworked as reasons she left the profession.
High school principal Kristen Barker, writing in Education Update, says millennial teachers want to be valued for their work, and want to be provided with clear goals and plenty of feedback so they can be successful. According to Barker, "Although some veteran educators may view this younger generation of teachers as demanding, the truth is that they want to be in schools where they will be successful, with colleagues who appreciate them, and with leadership who supports them," none of which are unreasonable requests.
Millennials may not have much control over the respect they're given outside of the classroom, they can be successful earning respect in the classroom by providing students with the very things they themselves want in their jobs: appreciation, support, and plenty of attention. And while Barker believes that millennial demands for changes in school culture are not unreasonable, it may take a long time for those cultural changes to occur.
When Respect in the Classroom Is Mutual
Earning your students' respect requires you to be consistent, keep your word, control your frustration, learn who your students are, be patient, speak in a normal tone of voice, and be kind. This might sound like a lot, but honestly, it's not as hard as it sounds.
One sure-fire way to know if you've earned your students' respect is to pay attention to how they behave when you're being observed. Kids know that you're being evaluated when the principal or another administrator comes in and sits down in the back of the room. And if they like and respect you, it's amazing how even kids who are sometimes a little challenging will go out of their way to behave and participate in the lesson. Kids have actually asked me after the principal left, "How'd we do?"
Further reading: Teacher Comments Are Powerful
I'm not going to pretend this happens every time I am observed. But when it does, I am absolutely grateful for their gift of respect.