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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

One to Grow On / Respecting Students

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Becoming clear about the attributes we aim to live out in the classroom makes it more likely that we'll learn from what we do.

School CultureSocial-emotional learning
A colleague recently reflected, "Meaningful teaching has to do not only with the skills you acquire, but also with the person you seek to be."
Like many profound thoughts, this one is easy to recall and repeat—and profoundly challenging to enact. In pondering how to guide new teachers, I thought of this colleague's words. The start of a teaching career is one of those rare times in life when we have a chance to consider who we really aspire to be—and to begin anew. Becoming clear about the attributes we aim to live out in the classroom doesn't suggest that we won't make errors. But it makes it more likely that we'll learn from what we do, becoming stronger professionals and people as a result.
Perhaps the most powerful attribute a teacher can attain is respect for students. That's a little different from aspiring to be respected oneself. I know many teachers who seek respect and don't quite get it. I can think of none who've worked consistently to be respectful of students who did not also gain students' respect—and the respect of parents and colleagues.
Respecting students means regarding them with special attention, honoring them, showing consideration toward them, being concerned about them, appreciating them, relating to them, admiring their strengths, and caring for them. Young people are dignified and strengthened by adult respect. The absence of such respect is corrosive.

Cultivate Positive Beliefs

Respect for students is rooted in teachers' beliefs and exhibited through our words and actions. One of the finest teachers I know told me about a colleague who found time each week to stand in the area where the elementary students got off the school bus. She greeted each child with a comment or question and said to herself as each one passed, "There goes another kid who can change the world." No doubt she found it important to turn her attention toward the reason she chose to teach.
  • Understand the power of beliefs in shaping their practice. They rid themselves of any covert persuasion they may have that kids who are like them in race, economic status, language, beliefs, or motivation are somehow better or smarter than those who are unlike them.
  • Believe their work can make previously unimpressive students shine—and can raise the ceilings of possibility for impressive students.
  • Teach students how to grow academically and personally.
  • Enlist students' partnership in creating a classroom that dignifies each person within it.

Choose Your Words Carefully

A middle school student said to his teacher, "When you hollered at me last week…," at which point his surprised teacher interrupted him. "Stop there for a minute. Have I ever raised my voice at anyone in our class?"
"Oh no!" the student exclaimed, "but you sometimes raise your eyebrow, and it's louder than any other teacher I've ever known." What the student understood is that sometimes quiet communication is the most powerful kind. He "listened" to the raised eyebrow precisely because his teacher communicated with him respectfully.
  • Listen to students—and hear them.
  • Use positive humor, not sarcasm.
  • Provide corrective feedback in ways that foster student effort.
  • Acknowledge student growth.
  • Use their words to defuse difficult situations.

Watch What You Do

A high school teacher received a similar comment many times on the end-of-the-year survey she gave students, something like, "This is the first time I've ever felt I could be successful in school." The teacher believed absolutely in each of her students and communicated respectfully. But it was how she taught that changed how students saw themselves.
  • Study their students continually to understand how to teach them better.
  • Connect with their students, and connect their students with one another.
  • Ensure that each student contributes to the success of the class.
  • Make curriculum engaging and meaningful for each student.
  • Expect much of each student and provide the support necessary for students to meet those expectations.
A new teacher who doesn't make missteps is a rare beast. Mistakes are part of learning for teachers as much as for students. But a persistent desire to respect those we teach keeps us moving in a direction that serves students, ourselves, and the profession well.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development, where she served as Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and Co-Director of the University's Institutes on Academic Diversity. She spent 21 years in public education, teaching students in high school, preschool, and middle school and administering programs for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1974. In 2022, Tomlinson was ranked #12 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings of the 200 "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #4 voice in Curriculum & Instruction.

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