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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Hierarchy in the Public School System

By Peter DeWitt — January 02, 2012 3 min read
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Children learn many lessons when they are at school, both in the classroom and out. The bus ride and recess are places where children may learn things from their peers that are not age appropriate. They also learn lessons from the adults around them that may not be age appropriate either. One of those lessons is an equality issue and it is based on position. Positional hierarchy happens in suburban, urban and rural schools and refers to how people are treated based on their position within a school.

This positional hierarchy can lead to school climate issues and often goes undiagnosed. The hierarchy begins with the principal, then the teaching staff, school secretary, teachers’ aides, cafeteria workers and ends with custodians. The positions held within the school system can have an adverse effect on the school climate because some students treat adults differently based on the position those adults hold. Unfortunately, there are adults who do the same thing.

Adults participate in this kind of behavior because they have low self-esteem and it makes them feel better to know someone is seen as “less important” than they are. Not all adults censor their behavior in front of children and those children notice body language (i.e. rolling of the eyes, folding of the arms, etc.) and hear how adults speak to one another (i.e. tone, lack of manners, etc.). This needs to be addressed by an administrator when it happens. If not, the behavior only gets worse.

Some students who see the hierarchy contribute to negative behavior toward the adults who lack the right positions. Principals are disciplinarians and are seen as the leader who runs the school. Teachers give grades, so they have “power” as well. Teacher’s aides and assistants do not have that same power, so they are often treated differently by students because there are students who place themselves right under teachers and above the other adults. It is important that teacher’s aides and other staff are taught to have expectations that do not allow this kind of behavior from students.

Although cafeteria workers and custodians provide a service to students and adults, they are often mistreated. When this happens in a school system it is a climate issue. All adults, regardless of position contribute to a school climate and deserve to be treated with respect. It’s not only children who can treat adults based on hierarchy, adults do it as well. School staff and administrators may actually be the ones teaching students how to disrespect others.

Why Does this Happen?
Many times children are disrespectful to adults because they feel disrespected by those very same adults. Other times, they learn that kind of behavior at home and it carries over into school. All of these offer teachable moments to students, whether that is through disciplinary action or good role modeling from an adult.

There are cafeteria workers, custodians and teachers’ aides that have amazing talents that often go unseen by the students and staff within the school. Many of them work in schools because they love children, and when they go home they do extraordinary things. In addition, those adults can be important resources for the school because they are often embedded in the community. In their direct work with students, they often uncover valuable info that has implications to the classroom. They know family history and may have inside information on things that are happening at home that lead to student disengagement in school.

Children, as well as adults, need to understand that there is not a place for positional hierarchy in schools. Adults have different roles and different responsibilities. It does not make them “better” than anyone else who works in the school. Adults and children need to be respected and learn how to respect one another. The power we have over children and those adults that work with us is precious. That power should be respected, not abused.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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