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Respect with no exceptions

When I was a principal, a teaching assistant knocked on my open door and asked to speak to me.  She looked bothered and upset. She told me that she came to me reluctantly.  She said, however, that she couldn't not speak up.  She said that a substitute teacher in the second grade classroom, where she was working, consistently spoke harshly and sometimes yelled at students when they were not immediately following her directions. The teaching assistant felt obligated to inform me of this behavior, because that was not how "we" treated students in our school.  I thanked the teaching assistant for informing me and I assured her that the person would be removed from our substitute list.

When I reflected on what happened, I realized the powerful effect that culture had on a school environment.  I knew that if there had been even one teacher in our building who treated students with disrespect, that the teaching assistant would never have informed me. If there had been one staff member disrespecting students, yelling would have been an acceptable behavior consistent with our norms. The teaching assistant probably wouldn't have noticed it because it would have "blended" into the culture.   Since that type of mistreatment was not the norm, it stood out like a sore thumb calling negative attention to itself.

As principal I could not be everywhere and observe everything, such as policing the environment. The principal shouldn't be a law enforcer; he or she should help honor and sustain the culture.  My job was to be available and responsive to members of the school community, so they felt free to share with me their perceptions about how the culture was doing. The teaching assistant noticed the aberrant behavior, and trusted me to take action -- to make sure that we treated our students with respect, regardless of how they behaved.

I thought about this incident in light of our recent national conversation about policing, inequality and injustice.  Schools should not be exempt from this discussion. They need to examine their own issues of equality and justice, especially as data indicate disproportionality of suspension and other forms of discipline for students of color.  Educators should examine how students are treated in their schools, or more specifically: Why do some people in positions of authority feel that they can treat students in ways that they wouldn't want to be treated?

Before adding programs or initiatives to existing systems, educators should reflect on this question. Answers to many of our problems lie in the culture of our buildings. Disrespectful words and actions stem from assumptions that hide in those cultures. These acts of mistreatment need to stand out rather than blend in. Respect for others with no exceptions should be the governing assumption and value for everyone.

I have also discovered that some people in authority unintentionally mistreat students because they absorbed the culture of schools from their childhood. They have not learned the skills of holding students accountable for their actions, while still respecting them as people.  I am convinced that many of these people would welcome an opportunity to explore the values and assumptions that underlie many of these culturally sanctioned disrespectful behaviors.

Therefore I believe that substantive and positive change in school culture is not just possible but inevitable when educators examine a key underlying assumption held by some in authority: Some students, because of their poor behavior, deserve disrespect because it’s the only way they learn to follow the rules of the school.

Apart from being ineffective and against the "golden rule,” this commonplace mindset has terrible consequences that extend beyond the school environment.  It teaches all students that some people earn mistreatment. Unfortunately, this perception leads to labeling people: There are good students and there are troublemakers.

This way of perceiving the world and dividing people into categories can "stick" with students into their adult lives. It is one of the sad lessons that students learn and retain long after they forget much of the content of subject matter.  These lessons result in learning and thinking that some people belong in our community and some don't; that some people are inherently superior to other people. 

Sadly, when we witness some police not only mistreat people, but harm them, we often forget that they think that what they are doing is right and necessary.  They are acting on assumptions of good people and troublemakers -- an assumption, hidden from their awareness, absorbed from a culture that gives them permission and often requires them to mistreat certain people because they "deserve it.” They believe their actions help the community. This way of thinking and acting is the path to injustice.

I believe there is a connection between the acceptable norm of yelling at students and the inhumane ways some people in authority treat people who fall into their mental category of "troublemakers." We should not justify mistreating anyone. Respect should govern all interactions with no exceptions. Even one exception can give the green light for many more exceptions and actions more harmful than yelling.

Educators must never forget that all students have an inherent dignity as human beings -- it does not have to be earned nor can it ever be forfeited.  This should be the underlying and governing assumption/value for the culture of all of our schools.  Our students (and our country) deserve nothing less. 

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of "Peaceful School Bus" (Hazelden), "No Place for Bullying" (Corwin, 2012), "Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities" (Corwin) and the picture book, "Okay Kevin" (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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