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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

Respect from Day One

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Classroom Management
I began my teaching career more than 20 years ago in an Indianapolis public high school. As I stood at the door on the first day of school, students piled into the classroom, talking to one another. I said "Good Morning" three times before gaining their attention. As everyone found a seat, they turned their attention my way, looking skeptically at this eager stranger who stood before them. I told myself, I could be in for a long semester. I was teaching in a predominantly black high school in the inner city, and many of these kids were dealing with tough circumstances. I wasn't welcomed with open arms. I had to earn their trust.
As the students stared at me, I knew this was my moment to set the tone for the year. I was nervous but pretended to be confident. I decided to be straight up with them: "I am Robert Jackson, and this is my first year teaching. I don't know half of what I'm doing."
The room erupted with laughter. The ice was broken.
I continued. "I will make some mistakes, but I'll take full responsibility for them. I would never ask you to do anything that I wouldn't do myself."
Silence fell over the room. I went on to explain my definition of respect and what I expected of them—and the respect I would give in return. I told them, "Even though I'm new at this and don't know it all, I care about each one of you."
Every student in the room was hanging on my words. I realized that some of those kids may have never heard this from an adult, or not often enough to make a difference in their life. I felt like I was well on my way to becoming the educator they needed. By being authentic and showing I cared, I'd mastered the number one job of any educator—securing students' attention. My words had taken away some of their anxiety, and some of mine as well.

Bumps, Bruises, and Respect

In the days to come, however, I was met with disruptions that seemingly came out of nowhere. Some days students walked in with their brick walls up, not wanting to communicate or to be communicated to. Longstanding feuds festered in the classroom, right under my nose. Often, when an eruption finally came, I found myself being reactive instead of proactive.
My ego and emotional well-being took a lot of bumps and bruises that first year. But along the way I learned techniques that helped me relate to my students and show them respect and compassion, techniques that made a difference in being able to handle "problem" behaviors.
Once, a student who wasn't supposed to be in my class came in with his friend, who was one of my students. He thought I wouldn't notice him. I asked him for his name; he refused to give it to me. When I asked him to leave my classroom and to go to his class, he refused. I threatened to call security. He jumped up, cursed at me and pretended like he was going to hit me on his way out (after dropping the "F- you" bomb a few times).
My first thought was to react angrily—but I caught myself and thought about the message I wanted my other students to learn as they looked on. So I kept my emotions under control and told the young man to have a good day as he left the classroom.
To my surprise, the young man, whom I'll call Terrance, came back later that day and apologized. He acknowledged he had no reason to speak to me like he did. Terrance wanted me to know he had been having a bad day and he was sorry. He said that he had expected me to yell back at him like other teachers; my restrained response was the reason he came back to apologize. I let Terrance know that his behavior had hurt me, but I kept my composure as I told him this. Terrance then said he wished he knew how to keep his composure.
This was an unexpected learning opportunity for me. To show respect as an educator, it's essential to control your tone. Remember that a student's aggressive retort to you is often the result of someone else's mistreatment of them, so we should always try to respond with empathy and restraint. It's tough to use restraint when someone is personally attacking you in your classroom, but it's ideal to remain calm no matter the situation. This sets the example of respect. When I let Terrance know I respected him for coming back to apologize, it meant a lot to him. He was on his way to improving both as a student and as a person because he was learning how to master his emotions.

Strategies for Respectful Interactions

By the end of that year, through what I can only call trial and error, I had gained a number of strategies to improve interactions in my classrooms. As I continued in teaching, I got better and added new ones. I continued to be honest, which served me well with students, but I also set up conditions for classroom management that allowed for compassionate interactions while still allowing me to maintain control of a (predominantly male) classroom. Allow me to share some of the approaches I found for respectful classroom management. I'm confident they will work for any new teacher.

Establish Rules Early—and Stick to Them

Establishing your rules up front makes it easier to respond effectively to your students' behavior problems. Since I taught Industrial Technology, which at that time female students didn't gravitate to, I had mostly male students. I wanted all of them to know what to expect so there wouldn't be any confusion.
It's important to let your students assist you in establishing classroom rules and penalties. This allows students to take some ownership of classroom management and takes some pressure off you because the rules become no longer "my rules," but "our rules." Have each student sign off on the agreed-upon rules and post a list of them where all can see it.
Whenever someone chooses to be late for class, curse, or whatever, you can simply enforce the rule and the punishment that may come with it according to the signed agreement. It's like a contract. No threats needed; students understand that when they break rules, there are consequences. You can also proactively remind students about a particular rule if you sense it's about to be broken. If they get an attitude, remind them that they helped choose that regulation, so it's their responsibility to adhere to it.
Keep these rules short and to the point. The rules I laid out my first year of teaching included no cursing, no hats, no tardiness, no fighting. My students helped to create these rules.

Stand by Your Plan

Hold students, and yourself, accountable to the rules you've set up as part of your classroom management strategy—unwaveringly. Your students will respect you for it. If one of your classroom rules is "no sagging" (meaning wearing pants below your waist where underwear or shorts can be seen), there should be no sagging in your classroom, end of discussion. If your rule is "no talking during a test or you will receive a zero," give talkers at test time a zero. Be firm and consistent.

Communicate Wisely

Establishing the rules is just the beginning. Equally important is determining the communication culture in your classroom. As a new educator, you must choose your words wisely from day one. The words that we speak to our children and students have power! You can build a student up or tear them down with your words. Your words will set the tone for the day, the school year, and your teaching career.
Students need to hear something positive about themselves every day. You never know what baggage a student is walking in with, and a positive word goes a long way. Try saying things like this:
  • You matter.
  • You are somebody.
  • I believe in you.
  • You have the potential to be great!
  • I enjoy having you in class.
Every day someone will need to hear such words. You may not know who that someone is, so repetition is necessary. New teachers might also prepare for these interactions by speaking affirming words to themselves before school starts.
Admitting when you're wrong is part of respectful communication. This can be difficult when the student is also acting wrongly. When I started teaching, I had students call me names, talk back, and even try to get physical with me, and my response was wrong at times. I was raised by a single mother whom we showed respect to no matter what. I wasn't used to being disrespected by young people—but lashing out will only make things worse. Once I yelled at a student to sit down. He retorted, "You asked me to stop yelling, but you're yelling at me." I was embarrassed by my actions. I immediately told the student he was correct and apologized to him.

Understand Your Students—and What They Face

Respecting the learners in your class involves having a true understanding of their lives and the stories surrounding them. A student acting out isn't a sign that you are a bad teacher or administrator. It's a sign that the student is experiencing trauma in their lives—domestic violence, neglect, parental incarceration, or something similar. Understanding your students and their challenges will help you stereotype less and control your own biases. Kids are dealing with tough circumstances, so your response is important to your success or failure as an educator.
Media influence is extremely relevant to how people view youth of color. When you turn on the news, the first or second story often involves a black or Latino male in a negative light, whether it's a story of homicide, robbery, or whatever. We mustn't buy into this narrative or treat students like criminals based on what we see in the media.
All students deserve to be treated fairly, no matter their race and ethnicity. But one reality teachers need to be aware of is that black and Latino males are suspended and expelled at four times the rate of any other race. One study showed that teachers were more likely to judge a given behavior as hostile if the student doing it was African American (Jacobs, 2018).
The school-to-prison pipeline is real: One in three black males born after the year 2000 can be expected to spend time in prison, and one in six Latino males are likely to spend time behind bars (Knafo, 2013). These numbers are staggering. In schools across the country, these young men are dehumanized, treated as less than, and kicked out of school for minor offenses. It's important for teachers to understand the effects of this context on students' morale and engagement—and try not to contribute to it.
It's also likely you'll have students who are facing trauma or even living in fear on a daily basis. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. The prevalence of trauma is one reason you will have students who act out. Children who have been subjected repeatedly to trauma suffer from social, psychological, cognitive and biological issues, including difficulty regulating their emotions and paying attention (Dorado & Zakrzewski, 2013).
So how does a new teacher get to know who students are and what they're facing? When you feel you've established some trust, privately ask a student questions like, "Tell me about yourself" or "Is there anything you're struggling with now?" Be sensitive to how much the student wants to share—or doesn't. When you know a student better, you might ask, "What's holding you back from being the person you want to be?" Sometimes it helps to be honest about your own past struggles in appropriate ways. Students will open up to you based on your openness to them.
To educate any student's mind, you must capture his or her heart. You can do this by always being fair and consistent, making yourself available to talk when students need to, being empathetic, and listening. Be that one caring adult they need.

Controlling Your Emotions and Staying Positive

Even when you use all these strategies, students will still be disruptive—or worse—at times. When that happens, your response will be very important. How you feel will determine your decisions and what comes out of your mouth, so gaining authority over your emotions is key.
How can you control your emotions in the heat of disrespectful behavior? For one, don't take students' behavior personally. Don't show anger, although you'll feel it; anger indicates that you've taken it personally. My rule for handling my emotions with disruptive students is to count to 15 silently before responding. Another way I tamed my emotions was to keep my voice balanced, even when a student was loud and disruptive.
Here's something I believe and wish someone had told me when I started teaching: An emotion is not a response, it's a choice. It's your choice to stay in emotions like anger or bitterness. Instead, you could choose to feel happiness, peace, and fulfillment in the work that you do to save lives every day.
Stop saying, "I can't help how I feel." Consider what you might be doing that affects your emotions. What have you been thinking? What have you been feeding your brain and believing?
To respond respectfully and compassionately to students, an educator has to know who she or he is. When I first started teaching, I didn't know who I was completely. I had never met my biological father, and I came to school with my own baggage. My emotions were sometimes out of control, just like the students I was supposed to be leading. I didn't understand that I could choose to be happy and energetic rather than abrasive. Doing daily meditation and facing the pain in my own life grounded me, and I was better able to control my emotions. This allowed me to see my students and their needs more clearly.
Strive to be a positive force in your classroom and in the school. Talk to students when you see them in the halls, and if you see your student doing something admirable, praise him for it. Winning a student over doesn't eliminate behavior issues, but it sure helps minimize them.

What They'll Remember

Remember that you may not even realize the impact you make on a student until many years later. Earlier this year, I attended a Lakers game. I was taking my seat when out of nowhere I heard, "Mr. Jackson. Coach Jackson!" I knew this had to be one of my former students because no one else calls out to me in that way. I looked up and there was Rod, a young man who'd been one of my first students—one of my troubled students. He began talking to me about how well he was doing with his job and how he was married with kids. Rod thanked me for my guidance and support. He told me my words had impacted his life in a positive way.
In the (adapted) words of Maya Angelou, students may not always remember what you taught them, but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Author's note: All student names are pseudonyms.

Dorado, J., & Zakrzewski, V. (2013, Oct. 23). How to help a traumatized child in the classroom. Greater Good Magazine.

Jacobs, T. (2018, July 16). For Black students, stereotyping starts early. Pacific Standard.

Knafo, S. (2013, Oct. 4). 1 in 3 Black males will go to prison in their lifetime, report warns. Huffington Post.

Robert Jackson began his teaching career with a no-nonsense but caring approach to education in Indianapolis public schools more than 20 years ago—after being cut from the NFL (Minnesota Vikings). He created a No More Excuses curriculum, which has been featured in publications nationally and is being used in K–12 schools, colleges, and universities.

Jackson is a sought-after expert on teaching cultural diversity, restorative practices, socioemotional learning, working with students who have experienced trauma, and educating Black and Latino males in the country. He has delivered keynote addresses and holds workshops for educators, administrators, parents, and students.

He is the author of five books and the 2019 Alpha Foundation National Motivational Educator of the Year.

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