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Teaching the 4th R: Respect

I wasn’t surprised when I came back from my end-of-the-year meeting with my principal, and found my students, as per usual, had gone wild in my absence. My few troublemakers never miss an opportunity to, you know, make trouble the second I’m out of the classroom. Still, I was surprised to find the teacher who had been covering me so upset and emotional.

“I have watched Mr. Brosbe teach you about respect all year and he makes time every week to teach you about respect, and I feel very disrespected right now,” she said.

And that sums up the problem pretty nicely. Despite devoting numerous lessons this year to respect as part of what I call “The Peacemaker’s Program,” many of my students still show no signs of truly grasping the concept of respect for others. In addition, my school unveiled a initiative called Respect for All, part of a city anti-bullying campaign. This is on top of the existing anti-bullying efforts my school had in place.

So, suffice it to say, my students have had a few opportunities to learn about respect, talk about respect, and roleplay respectful behavior. Nonetheless, problems with respect persist. There are times when students don’t respect property. There are times they don’t respect each other. And there are times they don’t respect teachers. Is teaching respect an impossible task?

I would like to think it isn’t. I’ve always thought that respect, just like arithmetic or writing, needs to be taught explicitly. The key, I believed, was getting my students to understand the concept of the Golden Rule. Since children are inherently self-centered (I don’t mean this as a judgment, but rather that young kids don’t instinctively think about others views or feelings), I thought if they could just make a connection between their own feelings and the feelings of others, then they might just act more respectful toward others.

What’s puzzling and frustrating, is how articulately the students can explain why certain actions or words are hurtful, but then they continue the same behaviors. I’m wondering why. Is this behavior just a part of “kids being kids”? Is it just a few kids whose behavior overshadows a general culture of respect? In the case of other teachers, is it a lack of classroom management? Is it a lack of character education at home?

While some or all of these theories may be true, I still believe that character education is an important part of what a school and a teacher should be responsible for. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find the time and energy to really teach it, model it, and reinforce it, rather than just lecture on it in response to the most recent incident. From what I saw last week, and many times before, if we want kids to really understand and exhibit respect, rather than just explain it, finding that time may not be a choice.

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