Teaching Profession Commentary

The Respect Quotient

By Bill Harshbarger — September 29, 1999 5 min read
Episodes of rudeness and outbursts of anger are too common in today’s classrooms.

Lynne teaches senior English across the hall from me. Last September, she separated and held apart two large, fighting 15-year-old boys, ordering them to stop and walk away. One boy walked. The other seized Lynne’s arm, shouted at her, “You can’t touch me,” and shoved her roughly aside. He miscalculated. Lynne’s husband is a policeman. She had the boy arrested. In court, the female judge had to convince the young man that he was out of line by imposing on him some community service and a $75 fine.

Of course, not all students behave so badly. Most still know how to act. But the episodes of rudeness and outbursts of anger expressed in today’s classrooms are too common, and the veneer of respect for authority that once assisted teachers as they worked with students is wearing thin.

There are many explanations for bad behavior. One can blame the inexperience and poor judgment of the student, the lack of early-childhood training, and the influence of peer pressure. And naturally many critics point the finger at the teachers themselves, claiming that they provoke students. But one group that has not taken any responsibility for these behavioral problems is the educational reformers who have spent the last 16 years tearing down the credibility of the teachers.

This started in 1983 with A Nation at Risk, a report that essentially blamed teachers for sapping the strength of the American economy against Asian competition. In inflammatory rhetoric, it charged that the “mediocrity” created by American teachers would, if imposed by “an unfriendly power,” have been considered “an act of war.” Most teachers laughed at this off-base, exaggerated hyperbole and went on with their teaching. We’re not laughing anymore.

Since then, and with no letup in sight, the corporate leaders and their political allies have created and perpetuated a growing, uneasy sense of fear about public schools in order to change or dismantle them. For different motives, educational experts, such as university professors, deans of colleges of education, and heads of educational committees, trusts, and foundations, enthusiastically joined the criticism. The media got the message and hammered into the public’s consciousness the idea that American teachers are failing. It’s not the kind of message that persuades people to respect teachers.

From the time the current crop of K-12 students started school until now, they have internalized to some degree the idea that their teachers are not very important. When conflicts arise and discipline is necessary, students and their parents can easily turn against their teachers, sometimes with surprising contempt. Unlike the classroom environment of years past, it’s not unusual today for students to talk back to teachers, to swear at them, to call teachers names, and even to become physically threatening.

Of the five socializing institutions--the family, religion, government, the economy, and education--education still has some chance of holding society together. The others are in varying degrees of trouble. Families are disintegrating. Government is tied up in scandal and gridlock. Organized religion is struggling for membership. And the economy is dismantling the social contract in the name of “productivity,” splitting the middle class into haves and have-nots and depriving employees of benefits and security. We’re not having an educational crisis, we’re having a society crisis, and it’s irresponsible to attack the one pillar of socialization that’s trying to pull things together.

Schools aren’t perfect, but they’re not as bad as the public has been led to believe. That has been confirmed by research, such as that presented in the 1991 report of the Sandia group, and by scholars such as David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, whose book, The Manufactured Crisis, documents the distortion of fact upon which much of the lowered-achievement claims of school critics are based.

Teachers can, of course, act in ways that inspire respect and make student response more productive by improving their own classroom behaviors. But when it comes to discipline, teachers today have lots of responsibility but almost no authority--and the youngsters know it. Simple things like having a student take his forbidden can of soda to the locker or taking away a prohibited laser pen may quickly become an intense and stressful dance on a legal tightrope.

What starts out as a student-discipline incident can end up with the teacher defending his or her own actions.

What starts out as a student-discipline incident can end up with the teacher defending his or her own actions. In “conflict resolution” sessions with students and the principal, some bewildered teachers discover that a student’s explanation of events can carry as much weight as theirs. They also find that students frequently will lie. And so they learn to document everything.

My colleague Lynne and I will continue working with difficult students who don’t respect us. We’ll do what we can to present effective lessons and show thoughtful concern for all students. But reformers need to dampen their enthusiasm for making teachers society’s scapegoat. They must narrow their criticism and balance it with accurate facts and an appreciation for the difficult work teachers do. They need to see that an exaggerated, fear- mongering approach to improving schools encourages students to challenge the authority of their teachers.

When teachers take charge of a class of students, they expect to be treated with common courtesy, listened to as important adults, and given the respect due educated people who are using their talents to serve the common good. Teachers need to put their energy into making better lessons for all students. They don’t need to be fighting for attention, spending teaching time talking about manners and decorum, breaking up fights in the hallways, and testifying in assault- and-battery cases.

Bill Harshbarger has taught high school American history in Mattoon, Ill., for 20 years.

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