Why Student Disrespect Shouldn’t Bother You

I once had a student throw a water bottle at me while shouting something that rhymed with “stuck glue.” I’ve had more than one flash me the middle finger while my back was turned. There have been countless eye rolls in response to what I thought were reasonable requests. If you’re a teacher, part of the job is being on the receiving end of occasional disrespect from students.

It used to bother me. I’d see red. How dare she! How could he? I’ll show her! I’d upbraid the impudent offender in front of the whole class. If a student was going to challenge my authority, I was damned if I was going to let her get away with it. I’d put her in her place. If I didn’t, wasn’t I inviting more of the same?

It was the wrong approach. It often gave the insolent student the very thing he wanted. It raised everyone’s stress level. It ruined my mood and wore me out. It damaged the relationship I had with the student and negatively affected the classroom culture.

There’s a much better way to deal with student disrespect. It starts by changing how you think about it.

It’s Probably Not About You

We teachers tend to be sensitive people, and we sometimes accept too much responsibility for what happens in our rooms. A lot of student misbehavior has little to do with the teacher. When a student mouths off or audibly sighs at a benign request, it’s often the culmination of a series of negative events. You may have provided the spark, but the fuse was already lit.

I sometimes say insensitive things to my wife. It’s rarely the result of something she has said or done. More often, my poor behavior happens as a result of an accumulation of trying circumstances. I had a long day at school. I lost my planning period because of a lack of substitutes. I got stuck behind a tractor on the drive home. I’m hungry because I haven’t eaten a thing since 11:30. The only thing I want to do is eat a can of Pringles and zone out, but my wife wants to tell me about a dream she had last night. So I say something awful like, “I don’t want to hear about your dreams.” I take my frustrations out on her.

Kids are people, too. This also happens to them. Their disrespect, while hurtful and seemingly personal, probably has little to do with you.

 It Might Be About Power

Some students challenge authority as a way of seeking power. All of us, from a very young age, want to feel in control. Children, who are in charge of so little of their lives, sometimes seek to acquire power in disrespectful ways. I used to think I had to win this power struggle. I thought that to win meant I had to put down any threat to my authority. I needed to show the offender, and the whole class, that I was the boss.

Now I know different. There’s another way to win. You can do so without demoralizing students in front of their peers. You can preserve their dignity. You don’t need to emotionally stress out yourself or your class. You do this by doing the very thing we tell students to do when they’re being teased. We tell them to stop showing how much it matters to them. “Just ignore them,” we say. “He’s only doing it because he’s getting a reaction out of you.

There is no reason to show your students that they have the power to affect your emotions. Your students shouldn’t know how to push your buttons, because whenever they try, you ought to react impassively, as if you have no buttons at all. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t use “I feel” statements. “I feel” statements admit vulnerability. They’re a sign of weakness. They let students know that they have the power to single-handedly affect your feelings.

The message your students receive is simple: You don’t particularly care what they think about you. Act like their words don’t bother you, or even better, don’t act at all. Why would you give a nine-year old (or a fifteen-year old) that much power over you?

Consider the source

For those students whose disrespect is more frequent, stop and consider why. These kids often come from rough home situations where disrespect is prevalent and where they haven’t been taught the proper way to interact with others. By responding in anger, you damage the relationship with the student and make it more likely you’ll get even more disrespect. You turn it into an ongoing battle. You also reinforce the behavior they’re  seeing at home. Instead of responding in kind, as their parents and siblings  do, show them there’s a more mature way to handle disrespect.

What To Do

You’ll need to assess what kind of disrespect you’re receiving. If it’s an anomaly and likely the result of frustration, you might simply smile knowingly, sending the message that you get it. You’ve done the same thing yourself at times. You know how they feel. You might shrug, as if to say, “Oh, well. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then move on as if it were any other minor transgression.

More often, though, you’re going to send the message that while you personally don’t care about their opinion of you, their disrespect is socially unacceptable. It will lead to future problems. Dispassionately give your predetermined consequence outlined in your classroom expectations. Make it no big deal. Then teach.

Assume they don’t know the right way to act. Even when that’s demonstrably untrue, it’s a more charitable view and will make you more likely to offer patient guidance.Assume the student doesn’t know an acceptable way to express his anger. Model better ways. Explain that there are people in the world (not you, of course) who will get very upset if the student treats them with similar disrespect. People who feel disrespected will be less accommodating. The student will be less likely to get what he wants. And there are some people in the world who respond to jerks by punching them in the face.

Once you’ve taught the student a more appropriate way of responding to others, forgive and forget. We all have our moments. Just ask my wife.

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