School Climate & Safety Opinion

David Greene: Building a Culture of Respect

By Anthony Cody — January 10, 2014 4 min read
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David Greene taught high school social studies for 38 years in New York. He has authored a new book, Doing the Right Thing; A Teacher Speaks, which shares valuable lessons for teachers and policymakers alike. Here is an excerpt, on the subject of building respect and rapport with students.

Let’s start with kids. For them, respect is as important as motivation, often more so. I am not talking about their respect for teachers. They respect those who respect them. Don’t get me wrong. They want structure and authority. But they need to know that their teachers understand their “code of the street”, wherever that street is, as much as teachers need to reinforce the code of the school. As Elijah Anderson wrote in Code of the Street (1999), “Respect becomes critical....Much of the code has to do with achieving and holding respect. And children learn its rules early.” That respect is from their peers, who they have to live with outside of your class and the school. “The street serves as a mediating influence under which children may have to reconsider and rearrange their personal orientations....Adolescents everywhere are insecure and trying to establish their identities....In poor, inner-city neighborhoods, verbal prowess is important for establishing identity...the need for being in physical control of at least one portion of one’s environment becomes internalized.”

In the streets and in schools, Anderson asserts that, “even small children test one another, pushing and shoving...ready to hit other children over matters not to their liking.” Why? To maintain respect. “By the fourth grade, enough children have opted for the code of the street that it begins to compete effectively with the culture of the school, and the code begins to dominate their public culture--in the school as well as out....In one elementary school, I learned from interviewing kindergarten, first grade-, second grade-, and fourth-grade teachers that through the first grade about a fifth of the students were invested in the code of the street; the rest are interested in the subject matter and eager to take instruction from the teachers--in effect, well disciplined. By the fourth grade, though, about three-quarters of the students have bought into the street or oppositional culture.” In this social setting, decent kids learn how to ‘code switch’ because...for many alienated young black people, attending school and doing well becomes negatively associated with acting white.”

Anderson also states, “Education is thus undermined because the mission of the school cannot equal the mission of the kids.... Alienated students take on the oppositional role so effectively that they often become role models for other kids,” thus gaining more respect. And in this environment, respect is necessary for getting along. Even “good kids” gain points for “going bad.” “This coming of age process has implications for relations with...teachers.” A formerly good student may stop doing homework, disobey, argue, talk back, and become more of an adversary.

So, here is where teachers come in! How do they change that? How do they explain the value of the school culture? How do they inspire and motivate kids to go against the grain and maintain their place in their world, while learning the ropes of ours?

One thing teachers have to do is learn to be able to code switch. Where the school is located doesn’t matter. “You have to be tough. If you show fear, others will exploit it.” Too often, though, teachers unfortunately mistake authoritarianism for toughness (as do obnoxious cops and administrators) and thus fail to “respect to be respected.” In that case, kids, even young ones, will take on an oppositional role, and you will have done nothing but add fuel to the fire. A teacher that shows fear is done. “Put a fork in her.” Show fear, and you are vulnerable to being undone.

Personally, I learned this from day one of my teaching profession. From the time I started at Adlai Stevenson High School, the staff was encouraged to become part of the fabric of our kids’ lives by getting involved in extracurricular activities and coaching. At Stevenson, I was senior class advisor, an associate dean of discipline, an assistant varsity football coach, and a baseball coach. Many of us chaperoned dances and concerts and other evening activities, even dressing up at Halloween. We helped them with their class plays.

We also helped students through panic attacks in the middle of the night. We talked them through breakups and make-ups with girlfriends and boyfriends. We helped them navigate some damn rough waters. We tried to thwart suicide. We became part of their lives and their community. Forty-plus years later, many of us still are. We meet for reunions, dinners, and parties. We are Facebook friends. That kind of atmosphere is where teachers can do their best work.

What do you think of David Greene’s advice? How do you go about building a culture of respect at your school?

David Greene’s book, Doing the Right Thing; A Teacher Speaks, is available here.

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