Aretha said it

18 Jun

As I “come down,” so to speak, from my amped-up life as a high school teacher, I’ve been thinking about the virtue of respect and the frequent lack of it in a high school environment. This is a noun I harped on during those many first-day introductions in my classroom. The lecture (I kinda had it memorized for my English classes) touched on respecting the classroom by not littering, respecting my need to have quiet when addressing the class, respecting everyone’s right to learn, etc. I probably could have blasted the Aretha Franklin song from my classroom boom box (circa 1985) every day for months and the kids still wouldn’t have gotten the drift. OK, just some kids. And I don’t necessarily fault the kids; perhaps they just define the word differently than my generation.

Here’s how they see “respect”:

Entering the classroom as the bell rings and finding their friends for some trivial conversation or another, then taking their seats.

Did I mention this act of respect often takes up to five minutes and that students — oopsie! — can’t remember where they sit? My repeated request of “Please quiet down and take your seats” crescendoes from polite to stern to angry and then peters out to a wan “C’mon, folks.” OK, as students would argue in their defense, at least they made it to class and at least they sat down.

Paying attention when I’m delivering important information.

Now, from a student’s point of view, looking at a text message, replying to it, adjusting tunes on an iPod, flirting with a classmate, hurriedly copying someone’s homework, etching a mushroom on a desktop with a paper clip, etc., can all be done concurrently with “paying attention.” I would call out students now and then, saying, “Are you listening?” and they seriously thought everything was hunky-dory. Sometimes they could even repeat to me my exact words from the lesson. Of course, I would argue that only complete quiet, eyes focused on me and pencils ready for note-taking qualify as “paying attention.” But what do I know?

Putting trash in the classroom wastebasket.

OK, that sounds respectful, but here’s where we clash. Students have a narrow view of trash that does not include: pencils snapped in half for the fun of it, ballpoint pens dissected down to the ink barrel and spring, white confetti from spiral notebook paper, crushed Cheetos, sunflower seeds, used tissues, caps from water bottles, etc. That “leave no trace” philosophy for trekking through the wilderness sure doesn’t apply to the classroom jungle.

Letting the teacher know when confusion about an assignment has arisen.

From a student’s standpoint, it’s perfectly fine to blurt out a question while I’m talking. I mean, this burning issue must be resolved immediately, right? For example, I’m immersed in defining Macbeth as a tragic hero, and a student needs to know, “When are we watching the movie?” Often the confusion in students’ minds doesn’t even gestate into questions. Instead, it’s “this assignment is gay” or something similar. But hey, at least they cared enough to make a snap judgment.

In retrospect, I see that kids are capable of old-fashioned respect; they just need a lot of practice with it — a stern teacher who stares them down everytime they interrupt her, or litter her classroom, or veer off topic, or annoy a classmate. I’ve watched teachers in action who rule their roosts with confidence and garner what I guess you would call respect, although some students might call it meanness. As for me, though, my attempts at garnering respect could have been a lot stronger. Sure, if you asked a number of my former students whether they respected me, they would say yes. It’s just back to that hazy definition of the word.

“All I’m asking for is a little …” And I wanted it Aretha-style.

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