Do Mean Teachers Get More Respect?

Today’s topic comes from an email exchange (used with permission) with one of our colleagues in the art department:

Hi Laura,
I was just watching your video on troublemakers and how to handle them. I really appreciate the refresher. I used that technique at the beginning of my teaching career but in recent years got caught up in students’ non-stop bad behaviors and basically gave up out of exhaustion. I’m an art teacher and will be starting at a new school in a couple of weeks. It’s a dream job. My strength is content knowledge not discipline. But I want this year to be the beginning of a new era for me, so I’ve been doing my own form of professional development this summer.

OK, I’ll get to my question – can you give examples of what giving students respect looks like? I have felt that I was being respectful to students but not getting it in return. I must be doing it wrong because what I see is teachers who are “mean” (in my opinion) are the ones who get students’ respect.

Feeling dazed and confused. Thanks, Victoria

Hi Victoria,
Congratulations on your new job! The fact that you’re watching teacher videos during summer vacation speaks volumes about your heart and ability to have a great year. Your question is really big, of course, and the answer is rather situational, which I’m sure is not what you want to hear. With classroom management, our personalities determine the success of different techniques. I obviously don’t know you or your style, so I’ll speak here in generalizations.

Respect is an interesting thing and I’m wondering what this looks like to you. Is it a happy hum of productivity? Is it kids sitting silently as they work? What’s happening in those “mean” teachers’ classrooms that you’d like to bring to your room? What’s your goal?

You don’t have to be mean to be respected. I’d argue that being mean is actually a block to learning; Rita Pierson (video below) taught me that “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” They want to know that you are on their side and that you’re thinking about them, their lives, their interests as you build materials for your class. To win their respect, we also need to have reasonable rules that are evenly enforced. Kids won’t admit this, but they crave structure and limits because these things make them feel safe.

So, what does respect from a teacher look like? Gosh, Victoria, it’s a hundred actions, both big and small. Here are a few questions I ask myself, in no particular order, as I think about how to show respect for my kids…
• Do I know and use their preferred name/nickname?
• Do I pronounce and spell that name correctly?
• Do I know all their names within the first week? The first two weeks?
• How does my face/body language change when a kid walks into my room?
• Is my room comfortable? (It’ll never be Pinterest-perfect, but is it cozy? Does it smell good? Do the displays at least look like I tried?)
• Are my lessons connected to things they find relevant and interesting?
• When possible, do I give them choices about how to complete their work?
• When problems occur, how do I handle the situation?
• Do I keep my cool?
• Do I discipline them in private or public? (Always in private, of course.)
• Does my punishment allow for tomorrow to be a better day?
• Do I build relationships by making positive phone calls home? Do I occasionally send a surprise postcard or email to a parent?
• Do I notice and comment on good behaviors as often or even more often than I notice and comment on bad behaviors?
• Do I listen more than I talk during class discussions?
• Have I built fun into our routines? (Okay, maybe it’s nerdy English teacher fun, but it’s still fun…)
• Do I have a sense of humor about myself and my failings? Am I honest with my students and own my flaws?
• Do I apologize when I’m wrong?
• Do I genuinely care about them?

One thing I’ve noticed is that some of my colleagues who struggle seem to love the subject matter more than they love the students. Not sure if this is you, but it feels like self-reflection time: Do you love kids? Do you think they’re funny and idealistic and interesting? Okay, maybe that’s not possible for all (I mean, some of them make it SO hard to love them), but do you generally enjoy teenagers even when you’re not talking about art? If the answer is yes, you’ll be fine. If the answer is no, you’ll likely continue to struggle.

So…what can you do to make teenagers feel loved and, yes, respected? Consider your class from their point of view. Why did they sign up for art? From the kids I know, they’re probably looking to express their creativity and they need some breathing room in a stressful school day. How can you meet their needs while still hitting your course objectives?

I talked on the blog earlier this summer about Quarter Trios and the importance of adding fun into our classrooms. Could you fold in some kind of game play? Could you set up lighthearted procedures that are student-focused, such as Disc Jockey of the Week, where a student chooses the school-appropriate music to be played during that week’s independent work time? Or Instagram Artist of the Week, where the students vote on which image from your class to add to your ongoing IG account?

For the more difficult students who refuse to work or regularly disrupt class, go back to basics. Invest 10 minutes of prep time visiting that kid during a different class period and find out what’s up. Call home, when needed. Parents are our allies. Give the rowdy ones special jobs. You know the drill. The more time you invest in them in the first month of school, the smoother the rest of the year will be.

Finally, your question brings to mind the wisdom of two experts. First, education pioneer Haim Ginott reminds us of our incredible power:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Those words guide my practice and I hope they hit your heart, too.

And no teacher’s school year should begin without spending seven minutes of PD with the fabulous Rita Pierson:

Thanks for reaching out to me, Victoria. A fresh year, a fresh campus, a fresh start. You’ve got this!

Okay, blog readers, what did I miss? What advice can you give Victoria? Her art elective is different than our English classrooms, but what projects or procedures would you add? Please leave a reply below to help Victoria – and all of us, really – have the best year ever. As always, teach on.

25 thoughts on “Do Mean Teachers Get More Respect?

  1. I was offered a teaching job once and I had to turn it down for the safety of the kids because the first one that would’ve started to act like an absolute nuisance would’ve gone straight out the window. All this to say that even though I wasn’t a big fan of most of my teachers growing up, over the years I have naturally built this immense awe towards teachers.

    Seriously, I don’t know how you guys do it. Respect.

  2. Thanks for the props, Kris and Vlad. For sure, it’s a special breed of people who can navigate this path. We all know MANY adults who wouldn’t last a week. Ha! 😀

  3. Regardless of my age I’m not sure I would confidently refer to myself as an adult, but yeah, you’re absolutely right.

  4. This strikes such a chord with me. I made the mistake early on in my career of worrying if the kids liked me. A couple of years in I realized they liked me, but they didn’t respect me. I also realized that kids don’t need more friends, they need me to be their teacher.

    Fast forward to now. Kids that haven’t had me say that I’m the scary teacher. After students have been in my class they realize that I’m not scary. Here are my guiding principles:
    1. All of us are at school to work. My motto is we can’t play until we work. I have high expectations for my kids, and I push them to reach their highest potential.
    2. Kids want boundaries. I set those boundaries (rules, procedures) and I stick to them. Every kid, every time. Because of that, I usually get the note “strict, but fair” on my EOY student evaluations.
    3. There’s no place for meanness in my classroom. From anyone. I don’t earn their respect from my strict expectations. I earn it by being prepared for them every day with relevant lessons that leave room for creativity and fun. I also listen to them.

    All this being said, others might call me “mean” according to their own perceptions. As long as I am there every day for those kids, doing my very best to get their very best, and building and earning mutual respect, then I’m okay with whatever label it’s given.

  5. Hey, everyone! I just heard back from Victoria, who is happily awaiting everyone’s pearls of wisdom. Since our email conversation earlier this week, she also found this absolute gem of a video on classroom management. There’s real value here and I’m hoping folks will find ways to adapt these great ideas to fit their particular personalities and situations. Enjoy:

  6. All of this! Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like, but they do want someone they see as an adult (as opposed to a peer/friend) in charge. You can hold them accountable for their behavior but still be friendly and approachable.

  7. Exactly, Megan. The balance beam may be narrow and we’ll definitely sometimes slip and stumble onto one side or the other, but we can always find our way back to the path. Wait…that’s a super-awkward mixed metaphor, but…well…you know what I mean. My commenters are way more articulate than I’ve been today. Gonna blame summer brain. 🙂

  8. Ivy Hendrix says:

    Consistency is key. Students notice if someone is treated differently and then feel disrespected. Another component is teaching the expected behaviors. Students may not know what those behaviors look like or sound like in your classroom, so teach them. Then focus on the positives. It is amazing when you notice who is following expectations how quickly others fall in line and want to be noticed as well. Good luck!!

  9. Diane Keyes says:

    The most profound 180 degree turnaround that ever happened to me: I was student teaching in a 5th grade class. I had tons of free reign, but not much guidance. There was one student, who was not even the class troublemaker, that I “could not stand!” I even remember thinking, whatever it was I didn’t like about him, when he grew up I still would hate him. That’s when it hit me like a giant slap heard round the world. He was 10. I was 26. I was the mother of a toddler. I was the adult in the room. The problem was mine, not his. I tried to change my head about liking him; it didn’t work. Then I thought, “God, You love this student. You are wild about this student. Give me Your Love for him.” I can (Honestly!) tell you that I instantly loved that kid. It has worked for every kid ever since. I, in my frail humanity, could not love him. But I could let God love him through me.

  10. Per usual, Laura you hit it outta the park. I think it is so important to note that respect must be defined. I think that was always my biggest struggle when I first started. To me, I realized that respect meant a kind of equality or a give-and-take between the two of us. We don’t have to like one another. But we both have a job to do.

    In my experience, disrespect is just a symptom of bigger issues. I try and work on establishing open communication, so that it can be preventative. That requires lots of one-on-one and taking an interest in things I could have never seen myself into. They know I care. They know I am interested. They can see my lessons are planned, organized and all the things you mentioned above and usually I get the respect because they can see they get it as well.

    I will say when there is an issue with disrespect, I try and put aside my own hurt feelings (cause usually that is what is happening) and I pull them aside. I sit them down so we are equal height and usually not in hallway so it doesn’t feel like they are in trouble. I use the same line, “I took your behavior as disrespect and I want you to know I won’t disrespect you like that, so I would like to ask that you not disrespect me in that way.” I don’t yell or fuss. I am just honest. What happens is they usually don’t realize they are coming across that way or in the smaller convo without an audience they will admit they are stressed or tired or whatever and their behavior had a lot less to do with me.

    Hope that helps and hope y’all have a great school year.


  11. Thanks, Ivy, Diane, and MR, for your insights. Such wisdom here! Keep those ideas coming, everyone! 🙂

  12. I only teach Year 11/12, so take this advice with a grain of salt if you teach younger grades. I only have one ‘rule’ in my classroom – ‘Be respectful’. It covers everything and is a positive way to form relationships with the students.

    I find that taking the time to listen and ‘see’ the student as a real human being, flaws and all, is important as a basis of respect. Get to know them as people. Relationships are the key. Hold yourself to as high a standard as you hold them. Live up to your word. Be prepared to be real and authentic and have fun. Give them (and yourself) the grace to make mistakes AND amends. Don’t judge or assume. Extend them the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best and, above all, start each day with a clean slate.

  13. For sure, Kelley, that rule is The Rule. By the time our kids get to high school, they know the deal; they know how they’re supposed to act. Sure, they’ll slip up (heck, we’ll slip up, too), we’ll correct them (or apologize to them), and then we all continue on the path. Your One Rule is clearly the basis for a happy life both in and out of the classroom. Love.

  14. Amanda Dexter says:

    I think it’s less about the students’ respect for the teacher as a *person,* and more to do with their respect for that *person’s authority.* For me, there’s a great deal of cognitive dissonance when I know for a fact that my students love me and say they “respect” me to pieces but then run amuck in class.

    I admittedly have an extremely hard time following through with consequences because I am eternally optimistic and want to give everyone a bazillion chances to improve, but it has led to my classrooms being out of control… Their behavior isn’t anything abhorrent, but it’s behavior that is not conducive to the learning environment and goes clearly against our class rules (incessant talking, walking around the room without asking, destroying materials, switching seats, checking phones, etc.). It’s like, how can they swear they respect me and tell me I’m their favorite when they’re not showing me due deference as an authority figure?

    So would you agree with my conclusion, that my lack of confidence in administering discipline for infractions is the reason for the misbehavior? Are they really just breaking rules because they can simply “get away with it?” How do I keep the respect as a person while also getting them to respect my authority?

  15. Glad you found this blog post, Amanda! There’s already a lot of great advice in the earlier comments that’ll help, but I’m also struck by the situation you describe. Let’s get real. Sounds like your kids are buttering you up to get away with lousy behavior. Come on, now…the room sounds chaotic, and their words are meaningless. You may be their “favorite” (yuck – is this a contest?) because your class means more goof off time than they get away with in other classes. How much more learning and growth could happen if you took control of the room? A lot, I’m thinking.

    It’s interesting that you’ve separated yourself as a person from you as the authority figure in your classroom. To me, there is no separation. My kids don’t know me as a person. Not really. They know a bit about my life and my family and they know the teacher-side of my personality, but they don’t really know me. Know what I mean? They know me as their teacher, which includes me as the creator and enforcer of rules for their own protection. And I’m cool with that.

    So…what can you do as you launch your new year with your new set of students to set the right tone and establish reasonable rules and boundaries? It’s on you to follow through with those consequences, evenly and every time. THAT’S how you show them that you care and part of how you’ll earn their respect. It’s hard, but only at first.

    Does this help? I hope so.

  16. As for resources, I recommend looking into PBIS and restorative discipline. These practices both look at behavior as something that needs to be taught in the same way that we teach content. I also echo the idea that consistency is key. I’ve flat out asked students why they “misbehave” in other classes and not mine – with the answer usually going back to my consistentcy and follow through. I don’t make idle threats to try to control behavior as they say many of their teachers do. Intimidation tactics and power struggles don’t work with teens IMO.

    Personally, I think that if I had to choose one specific thing that I do that helps me to strengthen my relationships with students and earn their respect is that I treat them like people and not behaviors. For example, “It really frustrated me when you did this” rather than saying something that could make them feel that I have a problem with them as a person. Sometimes it even means explicitly explaining that to them. You’d be surprised how many kids have never heard from someone that you care about them and like them even when they sometimes do things you don’t like. This can be mind blowing and a relationship changer!

  17. Great advice, Sarah. So much good stuff in here, and my favorite line/bit is: “I treat them like people…” Conflicts don’t seem so insurmountable with we know, like, and trust each other.

  18. jessibooks says:

    Absolutely wonderful advice from everyone! I love Laura’s point about making sure we have equity between positive and negative/corrective comments. Praise is so much more powerful than I ever expected, even after people told me this over and over, it wasn’t until I saw it in practice that I truly understood!

    I have struggled so much with this in my 6 years of teaching. I think one thing that simply is NOT talked about is your physical appearance, race, and gender WILL impact their reactions and behavior. As a 4’11 mousy looking girl with a high pitched voice, I simply have different challenges with some students than my 6’2 male peer will have. This does NOT mean that you cannot discipline because of these realities; it is simply something to look at and deal with objectively. For me, my height is an obstacle – I cannot simply use proximity and a deep commanding voice to break up a fight between 17 year olds, for example. But it IS possible to play to your strengths.

    Laura also has a previous post about handling individual repeatedly disruptive or rude students. She wrote about taking the student (usually a “tough guy” or class clown) into the hallway or meeting privately with them and asking them “Did I offend you somehow?” Use their surprise. Either you have actually unknowingly offended them and can take this chance to apologize and start anew, or (much more likely!) the student did not know their behavior was disrespectful or needed that one on one moment with you to build or repair a relationship, or model an expectation, or draw a line, or whatever it is that’s needed.

    Laura, I have to personally thank you for this strategy. I thought I was good with building personal relationships, but every year there would be one or two kids I couldn’t reach who would wreak havoc. This strategy has been SO INCREDIBLE to add to my repertoire!!! Thank you a million times 🙂

  19. And thank YOU, jessibooks, for being an active member of this little ol’ blog community. I know your words are helping others, too! 🙂

  20. This is a great, contemporary article. Thanks for sharing your views.

  21. Miriam Oppenheim says:

    I wish I could be as good as I’m sure you all are… some days are so good and others are just awful. I can’t explain it. I teach 10th -12th ESL
    My 11th grade is a nightmare one day and a dream the next which I guess is better than consistently being terrible, like the other teachers experience them. I can’t take attendance because of the noise, I find myself insisting on them wearing their shoes (!) it’s crazy pants. The next day they’re perfect little angels! What gives? I’m new in this school I’ve taught on and off in different places maybe I’ve lost my touch?

  22. Well, Miriam, it sounds like you’ve had more wins than some other staff members, so there’s some comfort there. In my experience, there’s always one class that’s my roughest one at the start of the year. Then, just as I get them figured out and on track, a different period will start to fall apart. It’s almost as if one of my classes has to be my “worst,” even as that designation changes week-to-week. It’s weird. Cold comfort, I know. Hang in there! You are not alone.

  23. Really cool to teach! I find this to me a major point! Kids know if we love it. So, when you see that they are not in it to learn…fix it! For them! So that when we are out in front of them, the whole point of being there is their learning! I love to be part of their world…but it’s about their betterment. When they know that, then you are a hit. The other point is to be true to you. If you don’t agree that it is about kids (and they can tell), then you’re in a bad spot. You – and they – will know and it is only as good as you can make it.

  24. Indeed, Care, a lot of the power lies in the teacher’s disposition. So glad you found the blog!

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