Thoughts from the classroom – Part 2


Early on in my stint casual teaching here in Darwin I started thinking about how students perceive discipline from, and respect for, adults. At the same time I was thinking about the experience of adults when they face undisciplined and disrespectful children. As a CRT, this is something that is a daily consideration. As an Education Officer, sometimes one creating mock 1850’s learning environments, it is a very different experience.

Throughout my education degree I thought: I’m not going to be one of those teachers that just demands respect from their students, I believe I have to earn it. I still believe this. The problem is that the students don’t necessarily agree with what TYPE of efforts should earn respect. I figured that as a hardworking teacher who wanted the best for them and created the best learning programs I could, I was worthy of respect. But there are many students who will not show respect for their teachers. This may be because they dislike them or because they aren’t aware of their behaviours or fully understand the ramifications. Or, perhaps it’s because they put teachers in a completely different category to other adults?

The reason I have been musing on this is that since returning to the classroom I have been struck by the contrast between students’ interactions with me here, and those when I meet them as an Education Officer. In this discussion I am mainly referring to older students, after they have passed the phase of general love for their teacher and desire to please. From about Year 4 up.

Working with students I barely know, I receive markedly more respect in the role of Education Officer rather than Casual Teacher. Why does my official name badge or costume, as symbols of my position, accord me more respect from children than as a casual teacher? I am exactly the same person, with the same level of knowledge and the same qualification.

Is my manner different? Not really, at least not until I encounter and try to manage the behaviour management issues that come hand-in-hand with the lack of respect. The one exception of this is when I am role-playing as an 1850’s lady. However, even then, I don’t so much change my manner but rather just let the students draw their own assumptions!

When I talk about students showing a lack of respect, I see that embodied in particular behaviour: general indifference and ambivalence, speaking over the top of the adult-in-charge, inappropriate and rude comments directed at the adult, and a lack of empathy to the efforts of the adult. As a relief teacher I face these behaviours on a daily basis and trying to manage or alter them is challenging. In contrast, as a Education Officer I faced much less, and when it did occur, it was usually very easy to manage (a quiet look or a ‘may I please have your attention’ would normally suffice).

I noticed this difference particularly when I was with a class of Year 5 students for 3 days. For the first day and a half the whole class, while reasonably cooperative, were rather indifferent to me. It seemed as though they saw me as merely a teacher. They didn’t really want to share things with me. Then, when we were doing a lesson on Australian History, I introduced them to my permanent job. Most of the class were very interested and their behaviour towards me changed. From a number of students I received something very close to admiration. From most though, I received a higher degree of respect, shown to me by their willingness to listen, slightly improved behaviour, and interesting thoughtful questions. Sure I was enthusiastic and had good knowledge about the topic, but their behaviour changed seemed to stem more from their thoughts that I had a job worthy of respect. I was no longer merely their teacher.

Do students see teaching as something other than a profession? Do they see their teachers in a completely different mould to other adults? I think back to my days as a school student and there were definitely a few key teachers that I respected and admired. But I didn’t aspire to be them.

Is it familiarity? Do students see their teacher a bit like their parents – they might appreciate them deep down, but still have a battle and negative behaviours as they push the boundaries set by these familiar adults? Whereas other adults that students come in contact with may be seen as a novelty.

When children (and adults) respect and admire you, discipline and behaviour management becomes much easier. I know that, even as an adult, when I have met someone I admire, I go out of my way to be on my best behaviour and I listen to them very attentively and respectfully. Do those people we respect and admire, cause us to behave more like we did when we were young children? Is it our desire to please that moderates our behaviour?

Then what about the in between, neither admiration nor disinterest? I’m sure that it is only a minority of students I have taught in the role of Education Officer have actually admired my role, or me. But many have accorded me a nice level of respect. So why does the average student, without a great interest in history or museums, accord me more respect as an Education Officer than they give me as a teacher?

This post is riddled with questions, for which I don’t have an answer, but I think they are worth pondering. I know teaching is a tough gig. And while there are many joyful moments as you connect with and inspire children, it can also be challenging and draining. I wonder how teachers currently in the classroom feel… do they feel respected by their students? Do they feel they have earned or are due respect? Does greater respect come as your become a more skilled and competent teacher?

And what do we all, as past students, recollect as our feelings towards our teachers compared to other adults?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts from the classroom – Part 2

  1. Perhaps it was sharing something of yourself and giving them a sense of you as a person. I didn’t think of my teachers as people until quite late in my schooling – I was too focussed on whether their methods met my needs. I didn’t really have a sense of whether they were a ‘good’ teacher, but I had a strong sense of whether I was bored or interested, whether I thought they played favorites, whether the materials we were studying were too advanced or simple… These behaviors impacted on my experience so overwhelmingly it was impossible to see a person with an identity apart from that. This was something I think the teachers themselves encouraged, never sharing details of their lives, their hopes / fears / concerns, or even what they enjoyed. Getting to know your teacher is a bit like getting to know your psychologist – you don’t, because there’s a professional barrier there. It might be there for good reasons, but when the barrier is up you can’t get to know that person or feel much towards them, except for appreciating them for the extent to which they help you / make life harder.

    I think most young children don’t look for anything deeper in a relationship than what a teacher offers, but as they get older they develop a sense that a teacher is there to force them to do things (something they may or may not believe is for their own benefit), not to be their friend. Once they learn this, they cease to have much empathy towards the teacher and the relationship becomes about power and control, performing for approval or acting up for attention. By the end of primary school, this understanding of a teacher as a tool to get satisfaction / obstruction to satisfaction is so entrenched that it becomes difficult for a student to see anything else.

    • Thanks for your comment Caroline. I think that, in regards to the situation with the Year 5 Class and me telling them about my job, you are probably right that their behaviour changed because I opened up about myself. However, in other situations I don’t think this is really the case. I know that as a EO, I often share even less of myself, especially when I am in character. Sure I express my personal enthusiasm for the content, but I did that in the classroom too. Conversely, some times as an EO that I have delivered content I am not particularly passionate about (take Sport and War as an example), but I have still felt respected by the students and had little problems with discipline. Also I did, at times, share some of myself with my students – my interests, experiences, thoughts – but this was, a reasonable amount of the time met with disinterest or even scorn.
      I think you’re onto something with the bit about students seeing teachers as someone who is there to force them to do things. The idea that by later school students view the majority of their teachers as either a bringer of satisfaction or obstruction, and nothing else, is also probably quite accurate. But I wonder if we can change that? What about the teachers that somehow connect with the students who are normally in conflict with their teachers… how do they achieve that? Can any teacher do it? Or does it have to be the right teacher for that student?

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