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In 2003, after three years in a humanistic alternative public charter middle school, our daughter Emma decided to experience attending a large conventional public high school, with nearly 4000 students, for her ninth grade year.  One day, early in the semester, one of the vice-principals was a "guest lecturer" for a couple hundred of the Ninth graders, including Emma, that were spending their PE period waiting because they had not yet been assigned to a specific physical education class.  He welcomed them to the school and reminded them that their teachers deserved the students’ respect, but the students would have to earn their teachers’ respect.  Emma was now duly welcomed and warned that she was now a participant in a large public institution for youth, where she would presumably have to behave and perform to gain the conditional respect of the adult staff of the school.

When her mom and I picked her up from school we eagerly asked her how things went and she told us about each of her classes and her teachers and then, with an ironic laugh, she related the vice-principal’s announcement.  Sally and I gulped, but were not completely shocked or surprised.  When we asked her how she felt about it, Emma said it felt disrespectful of her and the other students, but she had kind of expected it, based on all the TV shows (including "Doug", "Daria" & "Degrassi" in particular) she had watched for some time that were set in and drew many of their storylines from the public high school experience.

Remembering my own experience with junior high (the middle school of my youth), I don’t think the adult staff ever explicitly said that speech about respect, but I understood it implicitly to be true.  Like many of the other twelve and thirteen-year-olds attending their first year of junior high, I was a kid with a significant deficit of self-esteem, craving any experience or relationship that would garner me a bit of the esteem of others.  In this new larger school, I would be exposed to seven teachers and seven classrooms in close quarters with hundreds of other youth my age, and we would all be struggling for the conditional respect and esteem that our teachers could dispense.  I understood that I needed to be compliant in my behavior, listen to my teachers, turn in all my homework, and do well on my tests, to earn the respect of my teachers and the bits of self-esteem that that might bring me.

The irony was that most of us students were in the same boat when it came to our deficit of self-esteem, but the issue was never discussed, either officially in the classroom in a circle discussion, or unofficially in the halls or the lunch room.  So like most kids with low self-esteem, we all assumed that our peers did not were much better off than we were, and of course much smarter, better looking, more socially adept, etc.  Lacking that needed and affirming discussion of our shared plight, one of the main coping strategies to try and build ones own esteem was to tear down others, pointing out our peers that were uglier, less smart and less socially adept than we were.

Twenty four years later in Emma’s high school, though the incoming ninth-graders were mostly fifteen instead of thirteen, I think a similar dynamic regarding self-esteem existed.  Lacking proactive efforts to have the students share their common feelings of fear and unworthiness in safe discussions facilitated by caring adults (or even older youth), the school reacted to the typical negative behavior of tearing down others by trying to regiment and control school time as much as possible to try to minimize the teasing, bullying and other negative behaviors.  Teachers worked hard to keep students lazar-focused on academic instruction in the classrooms (needing as well to deliver the material covered in the extensive content standards that would be tested in the high-stakes standardized tests), and then the school routine was set up to minimize the time available between classes for students to get into trouble interacting with each other outside the supervision of the adult staff.

This is a perfect example of where a more democratically run, or at least humanistically run, school would be a great benefit to the youth attending.  Imagine the kids being broken up into small "homerooms" or "touch groups", that would meet say once a week for an hour to discuss and share issues and coping strategies in a "safe" environment.  To create that safe environment, maybe each touch group could be led by an older fellow student, trained in facilitation skills, rather than one of the teachers or other adult staff that might be more likely to be viewed by the students as someone that they had to impress and therefore could not be candid around.

Shouldn’t every person in a public institution, youth or adult, be automatically treated with respect?  Shouldn’t all the public institutions in a democratic society respect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, whether that individual is an adult staff member or a student youth?  

When you have such a huge institution to run, for example a school with almost 4000 kids, and many of those kids have difficult family issues or are not comfortable in this school environment, I can see how it can be tempting to dole out respect and esteem as a reward for behavior modification.  Some kids, like me when I was a kid, so lacking and craving self-esteem, will do just about anything for the esteem of adults, and be in all things obedient and compliant.  But I hated every day I spent in junior high school, complying and hunkering down as best I could, and had nowhere the developmental experience I could have had in a more humanistically run institution.

I don’t think it would have taken that much to add the dimension of unconditional respect to my junior high school or my daughter’s high school.  Acknowledging that self-esteem was a hot-button issue for most students, and thoughtfully creating opportunities for students to share their concerns in a safe environment away from constant judgment would have gone a long way to make both of these institutions a much more positive experience for the students.  Too many of our youth have become accustomed to being put in situations where they are accorded far too little respect.

Originally posted to leftyparent on Sun May 03, 2009 at 05:19 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (12+ / 0-)

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Sun May 03, 2009 at 05:19:21 PM PDT

  •  There is a distinctly authoritarian strain (7+ / 0-)

    in the expectations, in and around public schools. Students, obviously, catch the brunt of this, but it certainly comes down on teachers, and, depending on where they are in the hierarchy, administrators, as well.

    Basically, heh, you're shit--unless and until you "prove" yourself. Your point-of-view counts for nothing;  your job is to "follow instructions."

    I'm glad your daughter brought this story home, and I'm glad you personally had the wherewithal to be alarmed by it.

    Thanks for the diary.

    •  I think many schools could be run... (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      churchylafemme, ladybug53, karmsy, Novem

      much more humanistically, appreciating more the issues and stakes for both the youth and adults involved, and create ways to build more positive relationships among students and between students and adult staff.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sun May 03, 2009 at 05:55:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Start time would be 4:30 a.m. just to make sure (0+ / 0-)

        everyone starts their day off positively.
        4,000 students with a good portion of those being raised by parents that don't give a damn.

        There isn't any way.

      •  Yeah, but this would require that the so-called (0+ / 0-)

        "educators" be people with more intellect and stronger personalities than we often see today.

        Is it their "fault?"  We could say that, and we would be partly right, let's not ignore the bad influence of other elements:  TV-induced lack of imagination and shortened attention span, low teacher pay, school boards more interested in protecting real estate values than in keeping their schools from becoming social voids, and lack of parental time in two-worker families.  

        Their real God is money-- Jesus just drives the armored car, and his hat is made in China. © 2009 All Rights Reserved

        by oblomov on Sun May 03, 2009 at 06:36:51 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  There are very simple democratic processes... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          such as having "circles" and routinely giving everyone the opportunity for feedback and suggestions, which can then be discussed that would help even very pedestrian teachers function in a much more humane and manageable environment in schools.  Democratic process is all about respecting the voice and expecting the contribution of each individual to the functioning of the community.

          Cooper Zale Los Angeles

          by leftyparent on Sun May 03, 2009 at 07:34:24 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Man, I second that. And like authoritarian (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      regimes everywhere, their best efforts are often expended in keeping people (here, esp., parents) at arm's length except for highly scripted events and pro forma encounters where their words often seem to spring from rote memory.  Whenever we ran into a realistic, honest, and capable "live wire" during our daughter's school years, it was a happy event.  The bureaucracy, tho, was as toxic as any I have seen, and I have seem a few.

      Their real God is money-- Jesus just drives the armored car, and his hat is made in China. © 2009 All Rights Reserved

      by oblomov on Sun May 03, 2009 at 06:41:54 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Good democratic process can mitiagate... (0+ / 0-)

        toxic bureaucracies.  Just creating an opportunity for suggestions that are truly listened to and considered can transform a bureaucracy.

        Cooper Zale Los Angeles

        by leftyparent on Sun May 03, 2009 at 07:36:07 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Natural Course of Events in High School (0+ / 0-)
          1. New teacher was dynamic, challenging, a little strange, very smart.
          1. Students loved him.
          1. My parents invited him to dinner.
          1. Other parents complained.
          1. Teacher was fired.

          Granted, this was a military dependents' high school in 1960. But I'm sure the same would happen today even more predictably.

          Joe Biden: Get up! Al Gore: Pray, and use your feet! Harriet Tubman: Keep going!

          by JG in MD on Mon May 04, 2009 at 06:41:10 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Based on what you wrote pretty shocking... (0+ / 0-)

            Many people advise teachers now to visit the homes of their students to establish a better relationship and understand where those students are coming from.

            Cooper Zale Los Angeles

            by leftyparent on Mon May 04, 2009 at 10:04:10 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I said it wrong (0+ / 0-)

              parents complained about him and his teaching style, nothing to do with us. I just meant my folks liked him but nobody else did.

              Sorry for the confusion.


              Joe Biden: Get up! Al Gore: Pray, and use your feet! Harriet Tubman: Keep going!

              by JG in MD on Mon May 04, 2009 at 02:41:56 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  It has been fourteen years, but I (5+ / 0-)

    had a different experience in a large Tesas high school.

    My personal experience as a student was different from yours.  I never worried about self-esteem.  My teachers always treated me and my fellow students with courtesy.  I don't know if they also respected us, but I know they were always courteous.

    I became a teacher in a large Texas high school  I taught 4 years and found that all students were treated with courtesy by the teachers, but not always vice versa.  The hostile students were few, however and the teachers and the administration, as far as I knew, treated them courteously and tried to help them deal with their feelings.

    I left teaching and worked for 30 years in data processing.  During that time I came to hire many people to work in my business directly and in the businesses of my customers indirectly.  We hired thousands of people over that thirty year period and I felt that I was actually a consumer of the products of our public schools.  The quality of the product deteriorated through the years.  Dependability degraded.

    Then I retired from my data processing career and became a substitute teacher for one of the largest and best-regarded school districts in Texas.  I became a teacher of math in high school for a six-weeks period and my eyes were opened.  Things were very different.  The students were hostile and for the first time in my life I felt unsafe more than once.  I saw, for the first time in my life, teachers crying in the teachers' lounge.  I saw administrators fail to discipline unruly students, not because they were afraid of the parents, but because they were afraid of the students themselves and of the administrators downtown at the main headquarters building.  I saw the impact of the state and national government on the decisions that administrators made when I was as student and when I was first a teacher.  The parents were just like the parents I had known 30 years before.  They cared about their children and they wanted them to have a good education.  I never had a single disagreement with any of them, in fact, we felt that we were allies in a war to rescue their children from an administration gone wild.

    I have my own opinion about how to fix these problems, but at no time did I think that teachers were doing anything less than their best.  They had the interests of the students at heart, and they were too often afraid, and almost constantly in despair.

    I decided to stop substitute teaching because I was not looking for trouble and that is what I saw in the schools of that time 14 years ago.

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning.

    by hestal on Sun May 03, 2009 at 05:47:05 PM PDT

  •  Everyone Should be Treated Politely (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LynneK, joycemocha

    Everyone must earn respect.

    Few of us go through life respecting everyone we meet; that everyone should be expected to be respectable is silly.  But all of us can behave politely to one another until we sort this out.

    As we are socialized, we are taught that society functions better if we are polite in our interactions.  The principal's choice of words is unfortunate but that's because "respect" has become the workhorse for all those more appropriate words that have fallen along the wayside to die, because they evolve from the area of manners rather than self-esteem.  Applying words like "etiquette," "behavior," "conduct," and "character," and "judgment" are the measures by which we should decide if someone is worthy of respect.

    Public schools could serve our children better by insisting on good manners rather than worrying about everyone's self-esteem.  There are far too many adults and children whose self-esteem is overabundant and whose good manners are nearly totally missing.

    "Give me but one firm spot to stand, and I will move the earth." -- Archimedes

    by Limelite on Sun May 03, 2009 at 05:54:55 PM PDT

  •  You are confusing respect with civility (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Burned, crose, joycemocha, JG in MD

    Your daughter is entitled to civility;  respect is something that must be earned over time.  There is no more important lesson that can be taught to these kids than that respect is not something that can be conferred upon them by the educational establishment, the Government, or anyone else.  IMHO, there is nothing wrong with the Vice Principal telling the students that the teachers deserve their respect, provided that the teachers are held accountable to a set of standards worthy of respect.  The primacy of self-esteem at all costs is what has crippled our public schools.  Until the reality that 'respect' must me earned and that 'self-esteem' is the natural by-product of living a life worthy of respect by others, the American public school system will continue to produce generations of kids with an entitlement mentality who are incapable of competing in the real world.

    •  I hear what you are saying but I disagree... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I think we may have different meanings for the term "self-esteem".  In my mind, it is a very positive quality that allows you to give esteem and respect for others because you feel it for your self.  A lack of self-esteem is what motivates people to tear down others, not an overabundance of self respect or esteem.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sun May 03, 2009 at 07:30:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  it seems more complicated than that (0+ / 0-)

        there's a lot of people with great self-esteem who show a lot of prejudice - while unaware of it. This happens because they do not have enough exposure to cultures that are different from themselves. They may feel threatened or confused by people who don't act the way their family/friends/neighborhood/folks on their tv shows do.

        For example, tea-baggers.

        In a democracy, everyone is a politician. ~ Ehren Watada

        by Lefty Mama on Sun May 03, 2009 at 09:57:01 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I attend a small, public charter (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    7-12 Middle/High school.  I've never been happier elsewhere.  The community is genuinely open and not dictatorial, as my experience in previous schools has been.  It feel like a school should....a community of learners, all with different abilities working together.

    Once again, Pi is responsible for errors.

    by Novem on Sun May 03, 2009 at 08:22:18 PM PDT

    •  Sounds great and I would love to hear more... (0+ / 0-)

      about the governance practices in the school including any structures or processes set up for the students and adult staff to communicate with each other.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Mon May 04, 2009 at 10:07:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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