Perhaps it has been the explosion of social media or the shift in news from fact communication to editorializing, but it seems our whole society has begun to slip away from valuing respect. Respecting someone’s position has become an “old school” value. And, the erosion of public respect is revealing an ugly underbelly of disrespect that permits the tossing about of all kinds of disparaging remarks and labels. Call those you don’t like ...or even those you do ...anything you want, say what is true and what is not, with no accountability. We were taught to respect our elders; now we are the elders and everything has changed. Today’s free expression of opinion is in direct conflict with creating safe environments for any kind of difference to be explored.
In an episode of the retired television show, “West Wing,” while in the Oval Office, a priest, who had known President Bartlett for a very long time, asked how he should address the President...as Jed (the president’s first name) as he always had addressed him, or as Mr. President, as everyone else called him. The president responded that there were decisions that he had to make in ‘this office’ that were difficult and most often contentious. He was making them as the President, it was his position that called for the decision and he therefore preferred that he be referred to as Mr. President. Aaron Sorkin’s script provided an excellent capture of this dynamic that highlights a question for our work today.
Does informality breed the lack of respect? We don’t think so but we might be wrong here. If you are old enough, you may remember being told to call your parents’ friends Mr., Mrs. or Dr. (and their last name). We drew the line with teachers when the question of calling them by their first name arose (think that was in the 70’s). Whatever the reason for the loss of respect, we need to think about how it slipped from our hands and what we are going to do to bring it back. Respect among us is societally valuable, especially in a democracy which encourages and open exchange of ideas and embraces its diversity.
This isn’t just a occurring among young people. It is an issue in professional sports world and in our own field as well. There appears to be a pattern of feeling disrespected and sending it back to its source. Does being disrespected give permission to become disrespectful? We don’t think this is how we function as educators. Maybe this is our place of higher ground. We never allow ourselves to be disrespectful to our students, regardless of their behavior.
David Whyte talks about fire and ice as metaphor. If fire fuels creativity, ice can cool that passion and slow the events taking place.
For safety’s sake, we all take the path of ice at one time or another in order to cool the passion of events, but most especially in the workplace, simply because we stand to lose so much in any conflagration; if our creative approach goes wrong, such things as power, money, relationships, and the respect of our peers are all at stake (p. 83).
“Most of us are shaped more by negative experiences than by positive ones” (Bennis. p. 110). In this, Bennis offers encouragement that in this time of tumult in our field and in our world, when we are feeling frustrated and disempowered there lies opportunity for learning and growth. No matter who chose this path, is it possible that if we make a turn, together, and forcefully shift the rudder of this ship we are on, we could change the conversation and lead to a better place? Respect may be the fulcrum. There are models for this kind of change movement. We haven’t seen this kind of leadership since Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. but that is no reason we can’t choose to lead with that spirit and seek other such leaders to rise.
In no way is this intended to be a defense of one side or the other. Whether the manner in which conflict is expressed within our systems, or the debates sparked about the reform agenda in education, all engaged in this tumult have the same goal...improving the educational experience of all children in our schools. When education is criticized as failing, all who work in it are tainted with the brush of failure. Morale is plucked away and the response is to defend ourselves. Who doesn’t understand that? Rather than sailing forward, we find ourselves in the icy waters, slowing everything down. In response, while bracing for the next wave, some level of disrespect swells in the other direction...and so it goes.
CBS’s Sunday Morning last week did a feature piece about the impact of criticism on the brain. Obviously, they were focused on it being Oscar day, but the story relates to our concern. The brain remembers negative messages longer than it does positive ones and their impact is strong. They suggest that designers have thick skins; we could say the same for educational leaders. But, wouldn’t it be nice if we had less unhelpful criticism bantered about and more impassioned...and respectful... dialogue? Are we just whistling Dixie?
Bennis, Warren. (2009). On Becoming A Leader. Philadelphia, Pa.: Basic Books
Whyte, David. (1996). The Heart Aroused. New York: Doubleday
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.