In our last post “Shut Up and Know Your Place” we argued that students need to learn more than obedience and authority if they are to compete globally in the future. Unfortunately many teacher and student interactions are built around roles that make teachers the enforcers of rules, the students the receivers of discipline, and schools instruments of coercion.
When we subconsciously buy into these roles, we often create unnecessary stress for both teachers and students, we create conflict where it does not need to exist, and we waste valuable time and energy dealing with issues unrelated to teaching and learning. Because the roles were so clearly modeled for us, we quite naturally re-enact them with the subtle belief that this relationship is natural, traditional, and inevitable.
So what can we do to break the cycle? Can we as teachers intentionally detach from our conventional enforcer roles and foster mutual respect that will improve not only student learning but overall school climate? We believe the answer is yes. Below are 5 strategies teachers (and other adults working with teens) can adopt to help students learn responsible individualism rather than compliance and obedience.
1. Get Real: Adults should not let their role as a teacher prevent them from being authentic in front of their students. It is ok to admit that we do not have all the answers, that we make mistakes, have flaws and insecurities. Teachers who let students know they are human, build empathy and make it more likely respect will flow. Students have consistently reported this to us for the last fifteen years. Building emotional buy-in within highly emotional adolescents shows no lack of professionalism but instead cements authentic humanity. Kids care about the important people in their lives and this is one way to begin building importance on their level.
2. Assume the best: Begin every teen relationship with the assumption that he or she is a good person. No matter how shocking the hairdo, or how many tattoos and piercings, or how wild the fashion statement, this is not a wild animal and does not need to be controlled like one. Until proven wrong, we must assume teens are good human beings, prone to mistakes like everyone else, but with the good intentions of self improvement and wanting to live a positive life. At first disregard their attempts to shock you with their overpowering need to establish an identity. If the hair, tattoos, piercings, or life-style choices need to be addressed, wait until a level of authenticity affords you the student’s trust. Reacting right away and serving as the guardian of society’s norms only discounts your message because you become the stereo-typical adult enforcer. Many students carve out their identity by rejecting and revolting and they expect us to play our part. If we refuse to reject and revolt and instead engage, there is a very good chance the teacher will have credibility enough to deliver the necessary message.
3. You must give to receive: Adults must first extend respect to teens if they hope to get it in return. Do not patronize or talk down to adolescents. Talk to them in tones and terms you would use with your adult friends. Teenagers are searching for hypocrisy and one of the fastest ways to prove them right, is through authoritarian disrespect. For example a teacher who demands all students respect the them while only reciprocating respect to students whom they prefer, will be quickly identified as a hypocrite. Think of the difference between courtesy and respect as a guide. Two people who have never met normally extend courtesy and politeness. With time courtesy can develop into respect just as an acquaintance can become a friendship. When adults demand respect from teens, the one-way street immediately feels authoritarian. Extend and expect courtesy first and with time extend and demand respect. Twenty years ago, a teen explained to a room full of teachers that students were more willing to learn in a class, “where the teacher teaches with respect – not authority.” Those words have resonated ever since. Respect takes time but authority is conferred immediately. It is easy to see how one is favored over the other. It is easy to see why one succeeds longer than the other and with greater results.
4. Take a different perspective: Label some teen behaviors as innovation rather than rebellion. Students will need to be able to think outside the box to compete in an ever changing adult world. Our families and society have subtly but forcefully told teens they are unique, special, and must stand up for themselves. So when they express their uniqueness, no matter how against convention it might seem, look at it as a positive sign they are creative and becoming an individual. Tell them you understand and appreciate their need to define themselves. Acknowledge how difficult it is to be a teenager, and how many traps there are to fall into. Acknowledge their innovations and attempts. “Did you draw that on your backpack? That takes some serious talent. I’m impressed.” Small comments offer an olive branch and implicitly tell the teen you’re not against him/her. That matters a great deal in the same way a compliment from someone you’d like to know makes adults feel good, too.
5. Get interested in what they are interested in: Ask for a copy of the music they are passionate about. Ask if their artwork is for sale. Ask their opinion about which movie you should see this weekend. “Would my 6 year old also like it?” Validate their opinion and reinforce honesty and authentic conversation. When teens feel like teachers like them and are interested in their lives mutual respect is an inevitable result. A quick search on the internet of their interests provides you volumes of information unavailable a generation ago. Names, places, movements, music, and styles provide you valuable information for future interactions. Chances are you know something about the roots of their interests or something about the city or subculture of origin. Your experience and education provide possible connections with articles, artwork, novels, problems, and social issues that may relate. Expanding on their passions always establishes credibility of the adult messenger. Small chunks of time spent with a student or small group is rare in their high school experience and means more than they’ll likely tell you.
“These ideas all make sense and I’d love to be able to engage kids. But I have 36 kids in my class and I teach six periods. I don’t have time for this!” This difficult reality is a reason but not an excuse. Teens are only in this place for a few impressionable years and when they hear the reality of your situation it only confirms that they are simply numbers – not people. Academically we need to take every student seriously. We must also take them seriously as people.
Be strategic. All teachers can identify the five students who move the class positively or negatively. By engaging one or two you influence the mindset of eight or ten. When that is done often enough there is a social tipping point which falls in your favor. Tip the balance toward respect by getting real, assuming the best, giving courtesy and respect, taking a different perspective, and getting interested in what interests them. Soon, you’ll have a class that is learning out of respect for the teacher who will hardly ever need to use authority. Time well spent.