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R.E.S.P.E.C.T: the importance of respect in our classrooms

This was my first year of teaching, more than ten years ago:

Student enters. “Fxxk this class!” Middle fingers get thrown up. Student exits. Class resumes, mostly unfazed.

Without fail, almost two or three times a week, this particular middle school student would open class with her remarkable entrance and exit. In a matter of seconds, she’d enter, side-eye me and her classmates, pause as if deliberating in front of a jury, and then moonwalk out of class with her fingers doing the rest of the talking.

No disrespect to my student; both she and I didn't feel respected.

Context: how did we get here?

I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2007. From San Francisco to Berkeley, all the way down to East Palo Alto and San Jose, I have been working in and with multi-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual Bay Area communities for almost 15 years. I used to be some out-of-state, out-of-pocket college kid who, out of ignorance, couldn’t identify anyone outside of Black folks, White folks, and Mexican folks. That’s a Texas (academic and cultural) education for ya. And now they speak of banning Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies.

Based on my upbringing in Texas, I had no business doing service in other ethnic communities. You're probably wondering, how have I sustained my teaching practice and my overall life in the Bay Area?

Simply put. Respect. However, it is not as simple or offensively stereotypical as bowing to elderly Chinese folks, bringing Coronas to the Cinco De Mayo party, or staying outside with the Armenian men for a smoke while the women talk inside.

No, really, think about it. Some of us may love another’s culture to the point of imitation; however, if we respected another’s culture, we wouldn’t think to appropriate it or “try it on,” especially for status, monetary gain, or cultural brownie points. Folks window-shop cultures and refuse to pay the price of struggle.

If I respect you and the cultures of my peers, colleagues, students, and general community members, I wouldn’t scoff at the sight, the taste, and the scents of folk’s food; hell, people hopefully wouldn't scoff at the sights, the (cultural) tastes, and the sense of Black folx. If I respect you, I wouldn't disregard, dismiss, or dissociate from the silence and the violence my neighbors experience. It’s a big assumption to say we are neighbors, other than just individuals living in close proximity, just trying to co-exist let alone cooperate.

I can respect someone or something without fully understanding or accepting them or it. If anything, the desire to be respected and or gain respect offers me the opportunity to be curious, conscious, and compassionate about different histories and life experiences.

In order to understand the different cultural forms and displays of respect, I need perspective, meaning what is “respect,” specifically in respect to whom or what? This pivotal prepositional phrase, “in respect to,” challenges me to think relationally and internally about my upbringing in conjunction with other ways of living and thinking.

The adjective “respective” prompts me to see differences, draw boundaries, and honor unique cultural individualities. What did you expect from an English teacher, whose job could be framed as “language policing” but more realistically whose job calls him to parse out conceptual nuances afforded by parts of speech?

So What: why are you bringing up this whole respect thing?

I know you all have seen the mass exodus of teachers leaving the classroom and the profession. Many teachers blame the unrealistic expectations and the unsustainable workload; others cite the unruly, disrespectful behavior of Gen Z students; some say the pay ain’t worth the pain of standing in front of little beings who can reflect the worst of society. Tupac said " 'T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.' 'til I die."

Respectfully, I have to tell you something, from teacher to teacher: in a pre-and post-COVID world, one in which social media videos and police body-cams, alike, show, reward, condone, and or popularize unhealthy, anti-social, violent behavior, we as teachers, guardians, and community members, may not be showing respect when we a) fail to understand our own definitions of respect as well as our students’ respective individual and cultural understandings of respect b) fail to co-create and cooperate around shared understandings of respect in our classrooms c) fail to consider the outside influences on us and our young people.

We, as teachers, assume that our students show respect in ways similar to us; for many of us, we unknowingly reproduce and reinforce the trauma-induced “respect” shaped by unspoken, exclusionary Eurocentric norms. I can speak only for myself when I say that I used to call out students who didn't give me direct eye contact when I was talking. Hecka disrespectful, as my middle school students would say. My first year I wasn't ready for their eyes and or worthy in my own.

DUH, many of our students are still learning about the different social connotations, cues, and consequences of eye contact; they didn’t have to turn on screens or show their faces for two years. Shoot, let’s be real, some of us teachers didn’t even show our own faces on Zoom. How is a kid supposed to know the social cues associated with when eyes should or shouldn’t meet? Furthermore, our eyes are usually glued to screens, thus many of us feel awkward when looking at another human being in the flesh. Yet, we are seemingly okay with seeing Black bodies lifeless, limited, and lost in a box--virtual or pine.

A word on eye contact

Many of us adults would like to think that eye contact mostly indicates respect, or at least active listening; however, I have had to widen my views given our country’s attempts to center mental health, my classroom observations, and my own positionality in respect to white supremacy.

From the point of view of someone with power over others, meaning those who look over or look down on others, eye contact can be about control and or confrontation, which are not inherently negative or problematic; I mean, one stern look from my mother communicated “check yourself before you wreck yourself,” and I definitely needed that cue before I did something stupid. On the other hand, from the point of view of a subordinate, eye contact can represent a request for help, admiration, deference, or mercy. And yes, we can intellectually move beyond simplistic binary or dichotomous thinking because eye contact can also mean “I see you” and “I love you.”

To understand, give, and earn respect means responsibility, research, and receptiveness.

Thank you to my colleague, Ms. Hernandez, for explaining to me that some of our minority students refuse to let their eyes become openings for another’s domination. For example, some students struggle to look into the eyes of teachers who may resemble, in look or energy, a current or past bully, abuser, and or missing figure in their lives. Case in point, I realize that some of my students without male role models that they can look up to look through me or look away when engaging with me. And honestly, who am I to say that I am a positive or negative role model to any of my students? Moreover, because of the fear of not being able to see potential threats and the trauma that creates and conspires in the darkness, some students keep their eyes open during morning prayer when they are instructed to bow and close their eyes. Through Black eyes, it’s not always about (dis)respect; it's about survival and safety.

Hot Take: while I want our students and teachers to do better as a result of feeling better and knowing better, I want the same for our households, our communities, and our country, quite frankly. In respect to white supremacy, patriarchy, and all of the -isms, respect is difficult to make sense of, especially when you have hundreds of years, countless pages of history, and erect statues reminding you that America was built on repression, not respect.

Back to the point

We, teachers, can’t always impart wisdom with just our lesson plans and lectures; we must use our actions to model self-respect in order to inspire students’ imaginations around how they want to receive and reciprocate respect. Similar to a love language, we need to make clear the language and acts of respect we want to include and implement in our classrooms and our schools, especially if we want to build solidarity and movement towards harmony, away from harm. Note: Harm reduction is not the same as harmony or healing.

Self-respect or the lack thereof can lead to gullibility, idol worship, poor social referencing, or negative attention-seeking behaviors. Developing self-respect can help an individual create self-sustaining policies (also known as self-standards), parameters, protections, and passages inside and outside of self. Self-respect becomes a determining factor or basis for decision-making so that an individual can distinguish and discern between essential and excessive; gaining experience and being exploited; education and entertainment.

Self-respect comes with self-accountability and self-ownership. When put in respect to others, I am opening myself up to step outside my own experience and potentially walk adjacent to or alongside other human beings, lived experiences, and cultures. Sure, I may not always have the legs, the partners, and or the trails to make and take those walks; however, I have respect for anyone who takes that first step outside.

I can’t expect anyone to respect me if I do not respect myself; and let me say this before I continue: do not let white supremacist ideologies divide and conquer your body and your relationships via respectability politics. Respectability politics are problematic when seen through a white supremacist gaze, meaning my Black self is only respectable when deemed so by white standards.

Furthermore, as difficult as it is for people to hear, I have to be mindful of the owning class, the C-suite executives, the politicians, the school administrators, the teachers, you know, the individuals who create and oversee systems and platforms as well as who take on majority of the risk and liability of a particular operation, for they get to set the rules, the roles, the regulations, and the repercussions for anyone they bring into their operations. I understand that I am an “at-will” employee, meaning my employer can fire me at any time for many reasons, known and unknown. That said, I have to respect parts of the game and the players while I work to leave the game, change the game, or create another platform for the game to be played--that game being education. Hence, I am creating this online platform, a Black-owned entity, my own operations.

Note: Don't allow self-respect to turn into self-righteousness or virtue-signaling. Anyone who claims to be "holier than thou" probably has a "hole-y" hollow existence.

Perspective: the various voices of frustrated teachers

Respect ain’t the only thing to fix this mess. Where are the parents and guardians? These kids (and teachers) have no home training, considering the many viral Tik-Tok videos. Kids are throwing desks at teachers; teachers are hosting fighting rings in class; parents are enablers of poor child behavior; political leaders and pundits take pleasure in debating for the sake of argument, not collective action. Respect is expensive; disrespect is cheap; people don’t buy respect, especially when disrespect sells so well.

The law of entropy applies here: things that are left alone will move closer to disorder. When kids are left alone, kids will be drawn to the disorder and disrespect that is being packaged and pushed to the masses via media. I have watched kids during their free periods sit on their phones, consuming adult Netflix shows, brutal street fights, and pranks gone too far. The internet is controlled chaos. Bad news makes for "good" content. As true social media babies and adolescent screen hogs, today's K-12 students and some college-aged young adults are arguably not cognitively ready for unstructured free time outside of lunch and recess. Remember study hall? The period where students, under adult supervision, had time to do homework and or meet with their teachers? Maybe the virtual overstimulation, priming or opportunity for chaos to ensue subsides when young people are given structure, supervision, and specific actions to take.

What if I refuse to respect any kid who disrespects me? How 'bout that!

That said, parents, teachers, and elders need to help our young people understand the impact of respect in their own lives and the lives of others. As a Black man, I hope to live long enough to become a life-affirming elder, who isn't too jaded or too bougie to support the future, our kids. I cringe every time I see my students follow some dangerous or reckless social media trend. Their favorite YouTuber doesn’t show their impressionable fans the theatrical stage production or consequence of their menacing social disruption and antagonism against innocent everyday people. Making a ton of money isn't always honorable or respectable. Money is easier to earn than respect, or should I say, respect is easier to lose than money? By any and all means, get your paper, right? No, respectfully.

Respectfully, I can’t totally blame today’s low-value celebrity culture and fugacious mass media. Corporations, media, and governments do not have to treat anyone with respect; they just have to convince, coax, coerce, or conquer us just enough to make sure we can follow, labor, and produce, at least until they find someone or something (piece of tech) to replace us. I would know: with Grammarly and Chat GPT, artificial intelligence threatens my job daily and reminds me to build other skills, just in case, my workspace deems my thoughts too Black, or I no longer want to put up with the lack of respect in PWIs.

Also, whatever happened to discipline in schools? There are consequences to one's actions in the real world; why are we doing a disservice by our kids by not giving them appropriate consequences? While I understand the move to make schools less oppressive and more just, we can't seemingly reward misbehaving students with only restorative circles and adult attention, which is finite and fleeing for the students who properly behave. And no, I am not endorsing corporal punishment, but I have heard of teachers who coach making misbhehaving students run suicides, do push-ups, or clean toilets after school. Then again, I heard these anecdotes from folks in Texas, working at single-sex schools.

Moreover, taking a village approach, I can't help but think that hiring the proper school personnel (i.e., counselors, therapists) is very challenging at this time and teachers are already stretched thin in terms of responsibilities. Can we realistically expect teachers to be content experts, counselors, translators, techies, nurses, after-school care-givers, role models, family and marriage therapists, social activists, peacemakers, administrators, coaches, cultural brokers, philanthropists, and human? And then we, teachers, expect each other to be competent trauma-informed, anti-racist, abolitionist, decolonized, liberatory, holistic educators? Good luck.

With the ongoing threat of school shootings and escalating symbolic and real violence within our schools, it's hard to handle continual disrespect that has the potential to evolve into emotional, intellectual, and physical endangerment. I agree that we need to better understand and demonstrate respect AND we need to be more deliberate about how we construct and leverage the community around our students. Generally speaking, no offense but more has to be done in education in order to make sure our Black and Brown boys are not continually pitied and pathologized by the purportedly progressive practices of tends-to-be white female youth advocates. This ain't Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers.

Conclusion: final thoughts

Well, as you can see, we all need to understand cultural frames of respect. No one wants to be continually disrespected, just like our education system (and our country) has done to Black folx for centuries. I hear Tupac because we are seeing "The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody." We are in a time of reckoning within our classrooms and our country. Something has to change. If that's the case, we have to contend with the internet, which remains undefeated in giving out L's to anyone and everyone ignorant, arrogant, or stupid enough to challenge its millions of sardonic, self-righteous, judgmental, photo-less trolls. Because of the dark, disrespectful cesspools of the internet, not to mention the actual dark web, we as a civilization can't let social media become the primary guardian, the primary teacher, and the primary community for our youth. At this moment, our young people need us the most in person, in perpetuity, and in love with their whole well-being, respectfully.

Now in my 11th official year of teaching, "Hello," "Thank you," "Appreciate you" can be heard throughout my classes, and everyone enters and exits gracefully and respectfully. No fingers, just waves.


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