Teachers face disrespect; facing disrespect is tiring; disrespect causes some teachers to burnout and leave teaching. These are stories of real teachers and the disrespect they faced. Their names have been changed to protect their identities:
Ms. A, an English teacher, told me how, when she left her classroom during break, her students went behind her desk, stole her bike bell, a memento given to her by her sister, and destroyed it, leaving bits of it on her desk.
Ms. G, a math teacher, told me how, when she left her room during break, students went behind her desk and stole a bucket of chocolate mints, treats she had bought with her own money for her students. “I bought this as a gift for you, and you stole it,” she told her class, supressing tears.
Mr. D, a high school teacher, was filmed by one of his students with an iPad. As a first year teacher working in the heat of spring-summer, he was both nervous and sweaty. The filming student froze a screenshot of Mr. D’s sweat stains, seeping through his button-up shirt near his armpits, and messaged the picture of his teacher to his Instagram followers with the caption “INSECURE.”
Mr. G, a high school teacher, was mortified when a fellow teacher brought to his attention Mr. G’s Ratemyteachers.com profile. A student had anonymously written, “Creepy guy. If you’re a girl, you’ll get an A. Has a boner all class.” A married father of two, Mr. G spent the next few months worried about his job.
Ms. H, a high school teacher, reprimanded a student for putting other students in danger by misusing lab equipment. The student pushed Ms. H to the ground, and as she fell, she hit her head on a desk. She was hospitalized for three days. When she returned, the student was there, rude as ever.
Everyday Disrespect & Why My Respect Post Struck a Nerve
Apart from these sad, dramatic cases there is the everyday, pernicious disrespect teachers face, ranging from students who blame the teachers for their failing grade; students who consistently talk over their teachers’ lessons; students who disregard instructions; students who make the stink eye or roll their eyes; and students who talk behind teachers’ backs.
While my focus as a teacher is on the positive—the majority of wonderful, polite students I teach; the joy of sharing my passion—there are times when I need to be real about the dark side of teaching. Your response to one of these real articles about teacher self-respect—“You’re Not ‘Just’ a Teacher: Self-Respect for Teachers 101”—was overwhelming and the most highly shared post I’ve ever written.
I therefore know that, to properly beat teacher burnout, we teachers can’t ignore the challenge of disrespect.
Dealing with Disrespectful Parents
And while we tackle the subject of disrespect, we can’t forget disrespectful parents…
Most parents are powerful allies in the education of their children.
But some parents will blame the teacher for their child’s poor grades; demand unwarranted special treatment for their children; protect their children against fair consequences for misbehaviour; or shelter their children from any failure.
These parents treat teachers as grade dispensers, not educators; as enemies, not allies; as servants, not professionals.
The mottos of these people seem to be, “Those who can’t, teach…” or “My child would never…”
So, a small group of people—disrespectful students and parents—can make a teacher’s life hell, and it is important to face their disrespect with courage.
Here is my advice for teachers dealing with disrespect.
Remember the disrespect you face is often not personal.
Whether you are dealing with a rude student or a rude parent, the majority of the time, their behaviour is not about you. 99% of the time, difficult students I’ve dealt with have been facing a personal issue, such as parental divorce to drug abuse. The same can be said for difficult parents. Some parents had abusive or lazy teachers, and project their experiences on to you. Some parents were abused by their parents, so they compensate by being especially protective of their children and steamrolling any of their obstacles. Whenever you face a difficult student or parents, remember the massive boulder of past experience they’re carrying. As they come to complain or disrespect you, they’re hobbling under a massive, painful weight. The biggest mistake is to take their rudeness personally.
Start with respect for yourself.
When I was starting out as a teacher, I envisioned myself as being the Ms. Honey of teachers, the kind, warm, loving teacher who would do anything for her students. Within a year, I realized that being kind, warm, and loving without also being a bit of a determined diva— tough, authoritative, and self-respecting— was a fool’s road. To thrive in your classroom, you need to set boundaries. Have a clear classroom management plan, complete with rules and consequences. Have set work hours. Don’t give up your weekends, or you’ll end up resentful. Don’t let any person—teenaged or adult—speak to you disrespectfully. If a student speaks to you rudely, ask him or her to leave your classroom and dole out consequences matter-of-factly. If a parent is rude to you, stand up and say, “I don’t like your tone. When you are ready to speak with me in a calm and polite manner, I would like to hear from you.” And then leave.
Take disrespect as mental toughness training.
One of my favourite Japanese proverbs is “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” This proverb reminds me of the value of failure and adversity, for when I “fall down” I get “stand up” again. Over the years, in dealing with difficult students or parents, I have fallen, but I have always gotten back up again. And now, after falling down in the face of disrespect, I find myself standing on my own two feet. Years of teaching—years of mental toughness training—have strengthened me against disrespect. I encourage you to view difficult students and parents as mental toughness training. When a new “training session,” comes a long in the guise of an angry parent, welcome it. Realize you are building up mental toughness the same way an athlete builds up muscle, through practice in the middle of the ring. One of my favourite teacher cartoons summarizes this reality nicely. It features a middle-aged teacher leaning back nonchalantly on her chair behind her classroom desk. “I’m a public-school teacher,” the caption reads, “bring it on.”
Have a sense of humour and perspective.
Whether you are dealing with a dramatic case of disrespect or an everyday form of disrespect, it pays to laugh. Over the years, the complaints students or parents have given, are, in retrospect, funny. In the moment, they seemed terrible obstacles, but today, these incidents are just part of my funny-teacher-moments rolodex.
Foster empathy and kindness rather than hatred and blame.
In relation to my first tip, “It’s not personal,” is the underlying reality that difficult students and parents are fighting their own demons and have simply pulled you into the fray. Their disrespect is an outgrowth of a spiritual disease, and it is painful to them, just as a physical disease is painful. Just as you wouldn’t chastise a person suffering from cancer or tuberculosis, don’t chastise or judge these people. Realize they are suffering and sick and eventually, they’ll get better. Refuse to become sick yourself. Also remember that, at one point or another, you were sick.
Pray for disrespectful students and their parents.
When I was growing up, my Polish grandmother had some terrible stories of war in communist Poland. These stories included the worst sorts of people—abusers, destroyers, and traitors—who had once been decent people living alongside my grandmother in her village. After the war ended, these same people returned to the villages they’d shattered; they returned to rebuild destroyed houses—the same houses they’d torn down. To live among these former enemies, and to meet them at the local store without spitting on them or slapping them, my grandmother, a devout Catholic, prayed for them. As child, she always reminded me that Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also” [Luke 6:29]. While I never allow anyone to treat me badly, I try not to return the mistreatment. That means treating the disrespectful student or parent kindly. To accomplish this, I need to pray for them first. Prayer is the only way I know how to deeply forgive them.
You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. (Colossians 3:12-13)
Over the years, I’ve been able to learn to face disrespect, and then help other teachers struggling with disrespect. I hope this post helps any teacher who feels like he or she is alone in dealing with disrespect. You’re not alone; we’re all facing this challenge together.
Teachers, do you have any tips for dealing with disrespect? Share the wealth in the comments below.
To your teaching success and work-life balance,
P.S. If you liked this post or are struggling with burnout, check out these related posts: