“To gain respect, you need to give respect” – at least that’s what they say. But how much of this do we see manifest in the school setting? Very rarely; in fact it is easier said than done. In reality, respect is a virtue that is regrettably overshadowed by pre-occupation with habitual duties – teaching, in the case of teachers, learning, in the case of students, managing, in the case of administrators, and providing, in the case of parents. Everyone is so busy doing what they have to do that respect has been given little if not zero importance.
My friend, who is the Regional Education Director in South Africa travels extensively all over the country. He only makes it home once in a while. But he maximizes whatever time he gets with his family. I happen to visit him last December, where I learned a lesson of great significance. Because he is hardly there with his two children, he chooses not to boss around when he gets home. I had to confront and ask him why he lets his wife to be in-charge even when he is back at home. His answer was, “She takes care of the kids, and she is in-charge when I am not here. I cannot just come in and take charge all of a sudden. My kids won’t have the same respect for me as they have for their mother. If I do that, they will start disrespecting me, and maybe even hate me.”
Implied in this response is a remarkable truth about respect in human interactions. I would say that it is a basic principle that if followed carefully, would save us from heartaches. If you want to be listened to, you have to gain the trust and confidence of the person you want to convince. In the same way, if you want to correct someone, you need to first of all connect with that person.
It is only natural for me or anyone to entertain the suggestions and recommendations of someone we know and have a cordial relationship with. We don’t listen to any random stranger and we definitely don’t trust or respect anyone and everyone that come our way. As natural as this sound, it is not applied in the same way at schools. A new principal could be appointed today and he would have the audacity to reprimand students, teachers, and staff right away. He does so by the virtue of authority vested on him by his superiors. While it is his duty to ensure discipline and order, it is equally important that he does it the right way. But what commonly happens is what was narrated earlier.
It is easier for people in authority to expect others to respect them because of who they are and not because of what they do to gain that respect. It is almost taken for granted that people in authority (in the case of the school, the administrator; and in the case of the classroom, the teacher) are respected by default. They are not expected to give respect to gain respect. This is hypocrisy and when students sense this, they lose whatever little respect they have for the school, and the adults who run it.
A friend of mine once complained about a secondary school student who was extremely rude toward a primary school teacher who commented on his failure to speak in English while in the school premise. When he was confronted by the teacher, the student cussed her with all the foul words he knew. The teacher was disappointed with his response. She felt sad and disoriented. She was shocked by his attitude. I thought about the situation for a moment and told my friend, “How do you expect any other response from the teenager when he was confronted by someone he doesn’t have any connection with?” (Note: the teacher was in primary section and he was in high school – their paths never met except for that time). The same student would have responded differently to his own class teacher or a teacher he connects well. Just because we are teachers, we cannot expect our students to fall on their knees and obey us. Respect is something that we earn. And we can only earn respect by giving it first.
As a teacher or an administrator or anyone in authority, it is easier to go around giving commands, passing orders, setting procedures and demanding obedience. But the most effective way to correct anyone is by connecting with that person. Utilizing the authority that is vested on someone is called coercive-power, while utilizing the authority that comes through connection is called people-power. The former takes people far apart, while the latter binds them together.
Research indicates that principals and teachers who connect well with students stand a greater chance of being effective enforcers of discipline and order. These principals and teachers are visible and supportive to students. They take personal interest in the well-being of children and mingle with them; talking informally, expressing interest in their activities, and encouraging them to do well in studies. Those who fail to do so create unhappy children, hence unhappy school environment.
Dr. William Glasser, the father of Choice Theory and proponent of positive approaches to discipline says that no number of behavior management strategies, however good they are, could ever substitute for a teacher’s respect for his students.
So the next time you want to open your mouth to correct someone, ask yourself this question: Am I connected to this person? If you are not, then you might as well keep quiet and go about other business. At least you still have an opportunity to forge a relationship with that person and then address the problem behavior in the future. If you continue with your plan to correct before connecting, the individual is most likely to hate and disrespect you for the rest of his life. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not impossibility. When that happens, you lose the chance of touching someone’s life in a positive way, forever.