Show Me Respect, Or Else!

A few weeks ago, two students showed up for English class a few minutes late–not the first time–and shuffled into their seats, smirking and tossing their backpacks to the floor. While I began to explain the lesson, a hand shot up from the back of the classroom.  “Mr. B, can I go to the bathroom?” He’d been in the room for two, maybe three minutes, and now he had audacity to request leaving.


I glanced back with a scowl, feeling my heart thump a little louder than normal. Are you kidding me? I thought.  The same student just displayed a disregard for the start of class by being tardy. Given that we’d been discussing the idea of respect in the context of the book The Other Wes Moore, I fired back. “You’ll have to wait.  You realize how disrespectful it is to ask me after coming to class late?”

“How is it disrespectful?”  he responded without sarcasm. I took a breath, realizing that he perhaps had no clue why his action was disrespectful to me and our classroom time and space.  It was a teachable moment, and I regret missing the opportunity to have a productive conversation.

Many students have skewed notions of respect, largely fueled by pop culture, fear, and violence. Ask students what respect means, and you’ll likely get a thousand different answers.

Some will tell you it’s about fear and power. Think about the bully who trolls the hallways, puffing out his chest, bumping students with his shoulder, demanding respect. Respect based on fear, violence, and intimidation.

Some will tell you it’s all about making sure you acknowledge their presence, their being, regardless of their behavior. I think about times when I’ve asked challenging students to move seats to minimize their off-task behavior, and they openly state they don’t like being disrespected like that. What?!

Others, mostly our refugee students, will provide a definition of respect based on family status or age. One Cuban girl told me she has to respect all the elders in her family.

Yet few will actually give you a textbook definition of respect: admiring and recognizing people for positive qualities, abilities, or achievements. Or acknowledging the traditions or routines in an environment, not wanting to interfere or harm.

The following passage from the book, a story about two men with the same names and drastically different fates, seemed to have an impact on many students.  In the scene, one of the Wes Moores, now a cadet at a military academy, witnesses a fellow student command attention and deference based on qualities he’d never witnessed before back in his Bronx neighborhood:

“In spite of myself, I was impressed. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never seen a man, a peer, demand that much respect from his people. I had seen Shea demand respect in the neighborhood, but this was different. This was real respect, the kind you can’t beat or scare out of people. That’s when I started to understand that I was in a different environment. Not simply because I was in the middle of Pennsylvania instead of the Bronx or Baltimore. It was a different psychological environment, where my normal expectations were inverted, where leadership was honored and class clowns were ostracized.”

Wes Moore, like many students I deal with, need to be deliberately taught different modes of perceiving themselves and the world.  There is perhaps too much emphasis on academics in school, given the social-emotional deficits students bring to the table.  Is it more important to learn the periodic table or learn and practice real tolerance and respect?  How do you think you learned respect?  If you are a teacher or have/work with young people, what are you observations regarding respect?


  1. to me, respect starts with respecting yourself, and showing respect to others, of course, this doesn’t guarantee that others will do the same for you. But I guess that being aware and demanding it in a respectful matter is important and necessary. I must say that as a teacher, it will be complicated for you since you have a lot of students to deal with. Create boundaries and make sure the follow them, but mainly teach them. We do not come from the same backgrounds nor have the same point of view. I honestly think you did a great job taking the time expressing your concern; part of earning respect, is helping others grow

  2. For lack of a better word, and at the risk of sounding a little weird, it’s almost like an energy field around the person. It’s the look in their eyes, the mannerisms they carry, the tone of their voice and choice of words. They invite you into their world without demanding it. It’s almost like a magnetic attraction. It is easier to get pulled in then try to pull away. And once you are within their sphere of influence, you are there for good, and you don’t necessarily want to leave. Ultimately, I believe that inviting “true” respect into your life begins with casting that respect out to those around you. From my experience, I am not sure that one can happen without the other. Good discussion, thanks for sharing.

  3. I take your point.

    I was lucky enough to grow up in a sane household with powerful role models for achievement and excellence. I still remember many of my teachers, even back to grade school, and am also fortunate to have attended a private school Grades 4-9, which gave me a very good foundation both behaviorally and for learning. If you have no one showing you how to learn, it must be very difficult indeed. When I was a Big Sister to a 13 yr old, I saw what chaos does to a child. It was very depressing indeed.

  4. Yael,
    I completely agree that the system can enable “mediocre, boring, cruel” teachers, or even administrators, to abuse a position of power. Of course, this model and adult behavior does little to teach students productive versions of respect. Thanks for stoping by!

  5. I’m sure you respected some of your teachers due to their actions, more so than their words! Seeing how respect plays out in school is just one of many social/emotional challenges I see students struggle with every day–it’s sad that so few kids have “anchors” outside of school to help them understand big ideas and productive dispositions.

  6. Thank you for this thought provoking post!
    1. As a teacher I feel that school is very much based on the “wrong” kind of respect – the one that justify the demand of mediocre, boring, cruel teachers for respect from their students, and enables them to use their authority unjustly.
    This is how we educate students – by deeds, not by words. We talk highly of respecting the virtuous, but from our authoritative position we demand our students to show respect.

    2. While the “textbook definition” of respect refers to people with extraordinary qualities, I tend to stress the importance of being respectful to everyone, regardless of age, status, circumstances or character. This is what keeps our dignity.

    Having said that, it’s not easy to be respectful to a child in a crowded classroom situation. the system is not very respectful to any of us.

  7. I was “taught” respect in the same of the same manners that you have indicated here: leaders demanding me to act in a particular way around adults and figures of authority, parents scaring me into doing the right thing for fear of the consequences.

    That was how I was “taught”, but not how I “learned” the meaning of respect. I truly understood respect when I found myself around individuals that didn’t need to say a single word, yet held my attention without fail. These individuals had an aura about them that just conveyed respect. More often than not, that respect existed because it was a two-way street, mutual. This person had cared enough to make a connection with me, and therefore I was reciprocating that connection.

    So, I would venture to say that commanding respect is a bad way to phrase it. Rather, I would say that you are inviting respect by opening honest communication on that two-way street, sometimes with words, often without.

    I have always felt school is not necessarily all about learning. Rather, it is about learning how to learn. And this was an important lesson for me.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. So, did you ask the class to respond to his genuine inquiry, “How is it disrespectful?” I wonder what they said, or would say, given their study of “respect” through the book study? Through the help of others, or yourself, did he “get” why his actions were disrespectful?

  9. I don’t envy you. But it’s a fine line between “demanding” respect and commanding it through your own modeled behavior. As you and other teachers know firsthand, some students get no respect at all within their own families so they feel desperate to get it wherever they can, no matter how inappropriate the time and place they try for it. Then you’re caught in an ugly power battle.

    Teachers have a lot of power over students. Sometimes it feels like too much. Then we’re told to “respect” them…is this a de facto matter of classroom decorum…or a deeper issue of what sort of character (in the classic sense of the word) a teacher is in front of their students? I’ve had teachers who I respected deeply. They were never the sort of people to demand it.

  10. In my personal humble opinion, one must earn respect by being respectful and can teach respect in the same way. A good example of this is the classic movie, To Sir with Love. If certain standards are instilled in a learning environment early on and enforced with respect, then perhaps respect can be learned. Of course, some people are tougher than others, maybe because they themselves don’t feel respected in certain places. Tough stuff. 🙂

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