By Cossondra George
When I was growing up (back when we wrote with rocks in the dirt, before paper was invented), children were taught to respect their elders. Period. Sir, ma’am, please, and thank you were the norms.
We now allow children more autonomy. We have given them the decision-making power to expect respect from elders before they show it in return. While I agree that children are people, too, and should be able to expect respect from adults, we do schools a disservice when we send students to school with negative attitudes towards authority.
In other countries, teachers are revered on the level with doctors and other professionals. The US ranks 16th worldwide in teacher respect. When student achievement is directly linked to teacher respect, schools and teachers deserve a baseline of expected respect when students walk into the building*.
Over my three decades of teaching, I have seen a significant decline in basic respect and courtesy, not just toward staff, but also toward other students. Calling each other names, pushing through and past people without so much as an “excuse me”, and even things like belching and farting loudly and proudly have become the norm.
Students prop their feet up on a table, shove their AirPods in, and do their own thing. Students can’t even be expected to bring a pencil to class, but when loaned one, they break it in half and toss it on the floor. When teachers attempt to redirect them to the learning task at hand, chaos often ensues. A simple refusal is one thing, but often, the response is vulgar and threatening.
We expect teachers to teach. We expect students to learn. That is the basic premise behind school. When students come to school without that inherent drive to learn, teachers can try to inspire them, and try to engage them, but in reality, it is a losing battle the majority of the time. Learning cannot be forced or coerced.
What happens when a student is disrespectful? A student calls a teacher a name, tells them to “shut up”, or simply tells them, “I’m not doing that.” Teachers have limited choices: call/email home (IF there is a working phone number or email address) hoping to get support. It is a 50/50 shot.
Students have so little personal accountability, often the parent blames the teacher for “starting” the confrontation. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We can write a referral and send the student to be dealt with by administration. There’s another 50/50 shot of success/change. The admin may not be available, or even when they are, they are caught up with more important issues. When an admin does meet with the student, things may or may not change. But the student comes back to class, rarely having any consequence for their actions. Their actions are likely to continue, their brazen teacher-disrespect escalating, and inevitably trickling into their peers’ attitudes as well.
Students skip class; students come tardy, some racking up 100 tardies per semester; students sleep through class; students don’t complete work or participate in class. But the classroom teacher’s hands are tied as far as implementing meaningful consequences.
The bathrooms are filled with students in packs. These packs destroy the bathrooms, tearing the stalls out, pulling miles of toilet paper out across the floor, drawing genitalia on the walls, defaming other students with racist/sexual remarks, intentionally urinating or defecating on the floor/walls, vaping, taking pictures of others using the facilities, or any of a long list of offenses. But we don’t know “for sure” who did it, so there are no consequences for anyone. The taxpayers just pay the bill for more repairs and cleaning.
The same students repeatedly leave campus, wander the halls, destroy classroom supplies, cause havoc in and out of class, and harass teachers and other students. But again, teachers have no authority at school or with parents to inspire any meaningful consequences.
Bullying is rampant. Parents love to bash the school for bullying. In reality, in nearly all cases, the student claiming to be bullied is just as guilty as the person they are blaming. It started with a “you’re so gay” comment from Student A, which escalated to a shove by the locker at break time by Student B, which escalated to a SnapChat being sent to the group by Student A, which escalated to Student B chasing A down the hall, which escalated to A slamming the door closed in B’s face, which escalated to another Snap being sent by Student B, which then got parent A involved, but they missed the first episodes so they only see a screenshot of the last Snap saying “better watch your back tomorrow”.
There ARE cases of bullying, yes. But more often than not, parents only get this final tiny snapshot of the ongoing issues from their child, who rarely admits their role. It becomes a “he said, she said” back and forth outside of school hours making the school part even more difficult to resolve.
Why do students feel emboldened to bully in the first place? Why are vulgar language, racist/sexist remarks, “innocent” shoves, and lack of respect for another’s personal property overwhelmingly prevalent? What happened to our basic decency as a society? Why don’t students come to school KNOWING these actions are not acceptable?
Teachers cannot be everywhere at one time to see these actions and intervene. Student accounts are twisted by their own perceptions. We get snippets of truth interwoven with embellishments of events. The reality is: Stopping all of these behaviors cannot be the school’s responsibility alone. We need help from everyone.
Schools are suffering from student lack of respect for adults and peers, a lack of respect for facilities, and a culture where our hands are tied as far as consequences being enforced.
Life doesn’t work that way.
If I speed, I know chances are I will get pulled over AND get a fine, plus my insurance will go up. Therefore, I keep my lead foot in check.
I know if I am rude to the police officer who pulls me over, I am going to end up in more trouble.
I know if I push or shove a random person in the store, they may choose to file assault charges.
I know if I do anything illegal, I am taking a chance at facing harsh consequences.
But students? They are empowered to think their actions have NO consequences.
They lack responsibility for their actions, basic respect for others and their school culture, and care for their own education. Those are the underlying causes of our school culture falling apart.
How do we, collectively—WE, US—the adults in charge, change student attitudes toward the building, their peers, and teachers? How do we stop the negative attitudes toward school that start before students even walk in the door? How do we ensure students walk through the school doors with a common baseline of courtesy and respect for everyone and everything?
Cossondra George is a teacher at Newberry High School.
*Walker, Tim. “Where Teachers Are Respected.” NEA, https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/where-do-teachers-get-most-respect