Myself, along with two other teachers, have started a 4-H club at our school. Currently we have about 12 female students in 4th and 5th grade. This week, we decided to have a "girl talk" about relationships. Our intention was to focus on relationships with boys, as some of the girls have "boyfriends" (we do not approve), but somehow the conversation turned to student-teacher relationships. I don't even remember the comment/question that created the shift, but I do remember the honesty in the responses these girls gave.
Last week a teacher was so frustrated that she started crying in front of her kids. She came down the hall looking absolutely miserable and ready to throw in the towel while we all comforted her and offered words of encouragement. When we brought up this incident with the girls, we asked them why the students treat her so poorly when they wouldn't think of treating us the same way. What we got was a very simple and honest response:
"Because we respect you."
Our ears perked up and more questions came pouring out of us teachers, curious to get into the minds of the students and why they behave the way they do. We probed further into why they respected us but not the other teacher, whether it had anything to do with race (she's white and we're black), what kinds of consequences they expect to have, why any of this should matter when it comes to basic respect. Here is a summary of what I learned and took away from the conversation:
-The kids don't respect her because they think she is soft. She appears soft because of her emotions.
-With classes that have lots of behavior issues, one reason is because they feel the teacher can't control the class because they know nothing will happen to them if they do something wrong. So why bother act appropriately?
-Some suggested consequences included: referrals, taking away recess, calling parents (all of which have been done mind you, but the kids still misbehave). But they say that when someone acts up the teacher just looks at them or walks out of the room, or the teacher is only concerned with the behavior of the "problem child" in that class.
-Other teachers get respect because the kids are afraid of them. One girl said, "if you come around the corner we straighten up cuz we know we're in trouble."
-The kids want structure.
-It does not have anything to do with race (we asked this question more than once and every time they all said no).
This was such an interesting conversation for me because I myself have struggled with being the nice or soft teacher. In my few years I have toughened up a lot, and I do see a difference in the respect I'm given and my ability to manage the students. The difficult part for me is, however, that I am not naturally mean or "hard" as they put it. One girl told me that "I'm hard when I need to be", which lately I feel like is all the time. I empathize with the teacher who cried because I feel her frustration with her students.
But the kids have spelled out the reality: don't even cry in front of them, don't "act soft". They'll take those emotions as a sign of weakness and take advantage of it (I personally don't believe crying is a sign of weakness, but that's just my opinion). Even being nice has to be handled carefully. You can't give them a reason to think you're not in control.
If I get my own classroom next year, I'd like to have a conversation with my class about this topic. I hope that I can get them to see that whether someone shows emotion or not does not warrant blatant disrespect, no matter how you view it. We should treat all people with the same decency and respect regardless of how we feel about them. We treat them this way because that's who we are as pleasant human beings.
I hope they will be able to understand and internalize this message. But at the same time, I will continue to put on my "tough act" and do my best to give them the structure and discipline they subconsciously (or consciously) crave.