Respect- The Key to Empowerment

“I will give respect when I get respect.”

“Yea!”

“I better get treated right before I even think about giving someone respect.”

I sat there puzzled, not quite knowing how to respond to this. I was in my classroom, end of spring semester, during our Advisory period doing a discussion with my 10th grade students on respect. At my school, we had incorporated the Choose Love Curriculum as our SEL curriculum and we did the lessons during Advisory. The school has Advisory classes that loop with students each year so I know them all quite well at this point.

As I was looking at the script that I was supposed to read and seeing the direction I was supposed to take this conversations in, yet, listening to where my students’ were taking it… well, they did not line up in the slightest. I was raised to respect my elders. Period. End of discussion. Yet, here was an entire group of 15 to 16 year olds who were adamant that my way of looking at respect was crazy. We continued the discussion with me trying to show them my side of the debate such as choosing kindness and love always. Sure, if someone had lost my respect then that was an entirely different story. However, why not start with giving the other person a chance? The students went on trying to get me to see their side- that people needed to earn respect first and so on and so forth.

When I got home that evening I told my husband about the debate, expecting him to side with me. Instead, I was left with wide eyes and opened mouth. He said, “good for them.” After staring at him for a good five seconds, I asked him to explain that response. He said why should elders be given respect automatically. Some of the worst people he knew were adults and some the best were children. He said you could withhold judgement of whether or not a person deserves your respect without being unkind. Not giving someone respect does not immediately mean you have to be a jerk to that person.

It was in that moment it clicked for me.

Along with being a teacher, I have two children of my own. I have always said that I wanted my children to grow up to be strong and independent, and it dawned on me, my thoughts of respect and how I wanted my children to grow up went against each other. I decided right then that I needed to change my way of thinking.

So, how have I found a way to empower all of my students in the classroom? By giving them the respect that they so desperately want and most of them deserve.

Prior to this discussion my Advisory class , I would say I was a “good” teacher. I designed engaging lessons, individualized instruction for specific student needs, and built relationships with each of my students as best as I could. The part that I was missing to truly empower my students was incorporating respect based on their definition, not mine. I have always respected my students in the sense that I treat them with kindness, fairness, and make decisions that I think are best for them.

Now I am viewing respect in a completely new way. I need to make sure I give my students a reason to respect me; I want to earn my students’ respect rather than simply not lose it. By wanting to earn respect from each of my students based on their terms, I have empowered each one of them to see their self-worth. When a child is able to see their self-worth, they are unstoppable and become the movers and shakers of the world.

After that night, I had changed my ways of thinking, so now it was time to figure out how to put this new concept into action. These are three ways I have found to earn my students respect, and in turn, empower them.

  1. Weekly feedback on my lessons- I am constantly giving students feedback on their work, so why not flip the script and give the students a voice to analyze my teaching each week? I have a sheet that has the weeks worth of bell work on it (or space to, I do not like them to work ahead) and at the end I have a box that allows them to share their glows, grows and feedback to me. On Friday, I go back over each of our lessons for the week so they can remember what all we done. On a daily basis, I encourage students at the end of each class to jot down any feedback they may want to share. I use this as a time to show students what constructive criticism is and how to use words in a kind and thoughtful way when giving feedback.
  2. Open and honest communication- some days are better than others. I have learned that if I am open with my students (within reason) then they tend to be more open and honest with me. This has led to me meeting the needs of my students better as well as showing them they are worth my time. There are some days that a student will need to go work in the hallway to be alone, so I let them. There are some days that a student needs to lay their head down for 30 minutes, so I let them. Then there are days that a student will come to me needing affirmation, so I tell them that they are strong and I am proud of them. Open and honest communication helps build that mutual respect and fosters a positive environment for all students.
  3. Goal setting- I can have my goals all day long for my students and that will not matter one bit. To really show students that I want to respect them and empower them I have to give them a say in their education. This takes time getting to know each one of my students. When I say goal setting, I do not just mean short term (which are also good). I mean really talking to my students about their future and what they want for their lives. By understanding their passion, I can help facilitate conversations in the classroom that will peak student interest, engage them, and allow them to take ownership in the classroom. I can show students why my course is relevant to their dreams and goals; I can incorporate technology that will be useful down the read to each of my students. We need to shift our thinking globally and long term- not just our subject and short term.

Each school, classroom, teacher, and student are different and how you find ways to empower students may look different than how I am able to. That is the beauty of education, it is specific to each child’s needs.

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