Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Respect—Where Do We Start?

Teachers who are stressed, unhappy, and unsupported by their peers are more inclined to treat their students with disrespect.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Talk to educators, and they'll all share their commitment to fostering an environment of respect in their schools. This finding was clear from a survey a colleague and I conducted of more than 200 educators in California (Beaudoin & Taylor, 2004, 2009).
Respect is important because it contributes to a context of safety, openness, and reflection; this context is crucial for the brain to effectively process and encode academic material, as opposed to being preoccupied with emotional concerns. Although educators genuinely intend to foster respect—and they spend much time identifying and following a wide variety of programs for doing so—disrespect and bullying continue to be rampant in many schools. If we're putting so much effort, money, and commitment into creating respectful school cultures, then why are bullying rates still so high?
Many factors, including broken families, poverty, exposure to violent media, and an increasing amount of pressure on students, have been proposed as explanations for high bullying rates. A closer look at these factors can be quite discouraging because we, as individuals, have little power to change them. There is, however, an overlooked factor that can give us noteworthy levels of control and influence over school culture: staff members' well-being and professional relationships.
It's fascinating to visit schools that spend many precious resources on antibullying programs but where staff members are burned out, unhappy, stressed, and resentful. Such feelings often lead them to be impatient with and disrespectful of their students in spite of their good intentions. In a teacher's own words, "I start every day telling myself that I won't yell at this particular student and end every day remorseful and discouraged because I just had too much on my plate and yelled after all."
We should not underestimate how much a teacher's or principal's mood can affect students. Even when you think you're hiding negative feelings, or at least containing them, your very status as a teacher or principal magnifies the little you express.
Whether we like it or not, creating a school culture of respect starts deep in the heart of a staff's well-being and professional relationships. The buzz in the staff lunchroom can be as telling of school culture as the suspension rate. What are teachers talking about? Are they divided into groups that never mingle? How many teachers prefer to eat in their classrooms instead?

Problem-Saturated Conversation

What teachers talk about during their lunch break has dramatic implications. For many, it's the only time during the day they can sit down with fellow staff members and connect in a more personal way. Unfortunately, given the immense workload, stress, responsibilities, pressures, and large classroom sizes that teachers are required to handle daily, it's easy for negativity to creep into the conversation.
Some teachers use their lunch break to rant about the latest misbehavior of a struggling student. The description is often the same: "The student is awful," and the teacher is "at a loss as to what to do." Day after day you hear, "You'll never believe what he did this morning!" Soon, lunchtime becomes filled with problem-saturated conversation.
A false sense of intimacy can develop as staff members commiserate with one another about these challenges. Although teachers may appear to be bonding, supporting one another, or simply unwinding, the reality couldn't be further from the truth. Sharing and being understood differ from problem-saturated conversation, which is a counterproductive process of complaining, criticizing, and dwelling negatively and repeatedly on the same narrow view (Weber, 2008).
The habit of engaging in problem-saturated conversations day after day raises a number of concerns. First, these conversations rarely lead to constructive solutions; rather, they lead to teachers seeing students in increasingly negative ways. After engaging in problem-saturated conversations, many teachers go back to their classes with renewed frustration toward the targeted students and, unknowingly, a heightened sense that they are entitled to be disrespectful. If colleagues confirmed that a student's behavior was "unacceptable," why should a teacher make an effort to treat this student with respect and kindness? Problem-saturated conversations set the stage for more problem behavior.
When teachers spend their only free time rehashing what brings them down, they don't talk about what energizes them, such as exciting projects or meaningful developments in their personal lives. It's easy for people to dwell on negative affective states because, according to neuroscientists, there are more neural networks in the brain associated with negative affect than with positive affect (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001); some scientists even speculate that these may be in the ratio of 5 to 1.
However, indulging in our negative experiences exacts a great cost because every time we engage in a brain state—such as talking a certain way, feeling down, or being negative—we increase the likelihood that our brains will "go there" again. The flip side of this finding is also true: Every time we choose to be positive and patient, we slightly increase our likelihood of being more positive next time.
Problem-saturated conversations in the staff room also greatly affect how other adults in the school, such as maintenance workers, custodians, or resource specialists, treat struggling students. When struggling students develop problem reputations, other adults who have heard the stories often treat them with greater impatience and suspicion; unknowingly, the adults become less tolerant and kind. These students gradually lose the possibility of getting a break from tense interactions. Every day, they become a little more alienated from everyone at school, and their hatred of being there grows.

Cliques and Gossip

Cliques that never mingle with one another also contribute to a poor staff climate. Cliques overlap with, yet are different from, friendships.
Friendships contribute to a teacher's sense of belonging and being supported at school, as illustrated by one teacher who said,
When I first joined my last district, I felt like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears. The first group I sat with for lunch was too hard. They were cynical, negative, and cliquish. The second group was too soft. I couldn't imagine how they got teaching degrees. The third was just right for me. I loved this group. We supported one another, and it lifted our spirits to spend lunch together.
Friendships among staff members energize, sustain, inspire, and do not adversely affect the community.
However, belonging to a clique often implies a disconnection from the rest of the staff. This is especially problematic when the staff is divided into some lunchtime cliques that have strong negative voices and others that have shy creative voices, with a scattering of individuals who eat in isolation in their classrooms.
The existence of cliques often means that some people are excluded from certain activities or put down or that unhelpful gossip about others infiltrates conversations. Many teachers anonymously report that when they hear a piece of gossip, they experience a sense of complicity, status, and belonging that can be satisfying if their daily experience at school is one of powerlessness or discontentment. Occasional gossip may be unavoidable in a group of coworkers, but it becomes a concern when it's constant, negative, or systematically targets certain people.
A school climate of gossip and cliques greatly interferes with trust, collaboration, and openness. It stifles creativity and makes it daunting for many teachers to share anything personal, making them feel isolated, disconnected, and sometimes reluctant to go to school. Stigmatized and isolated teachers are more likely to respond to students' struggles in impatient, disrespectful, and —alizing ways.
Educators are important role models of socioemotional skills. A teacher who continually shows that he or she is annoyed by a student gives the rest of the class permission to be annoyed by the student, too. The struggling student becomes caught in a downward spiral; the more he or she is the target of a teacher's and classmates' frustration, the more likely he or she is to be unhappy, resentful, and inattentive, which in turn, increases the likelihood that he or she will make mistakes and respond to everyone in disrespectful ways. We are all interconnected in a web of relationships.

Improving Staff Well-Being

Improving staff well-being, attitudes, and relationships is a journey, not an event. No single workshop, lecture, or lesson will make it happen. The process involves reflection, putting words to experiences, experimenting with new ways of being, and eventually committing to more constructive approaches. Here are three culture-improving practices.

Contrast Intentions and Effects

When a teacher engages in a problem-saturated conversation, what is his or her intention? If it's to get support, does the behavior accomplish that in the best possible way? Blurting out a frustration may provide some immediate relief, but it may not accomplish the goal of improving the situation in the long run. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect.
For example, if a teacher is negative with her class, a principal's direct feedback on the issue, intended to reduce the problem, may simply increase this teacher's unhappiness and thus her negativity with students. By the same token, when a student behaves in angry and hateful ways, intensifying punishments (with the intention of reducing the problem) may actually increase the child's overload of anger (producing the opposite effect).
Congruence between intentions and effects is more likely to occur when we raise questions about our own and others' goals. For example, when a school culture is undermined by problem-saturated conversations, it's helpful to hold a 30-minute discussion in a staff meeting, making staff members aware of the myriad effects of problem-saturated conversations on their moods, enthusiasm, energy level, relationships, patience with students, and educational values. A significant portion of staff members typically will become interested in implementing a "no-student-talk" agreement during lunch breaks. They'll also become more committed to this plan because they will have contributed to developing it.
In schools where I've facilitated such a discussion, most educators were still paying attention to how they talked to one another even several months later. They had developed more satisfying relationships by experimenting with different types of lunch conversations. In some cases, teachers felt less need to talk about struggles because the energy they received from their more collegial lunches indirectly reduced their level of burnout with struggling students. In other cases, teachers simply discussed problems privately to avoid spreading problem-saturated descriptions and to consider a broader perspective.
Staff members came to realize that more solutions and compassion are to be found in broad perspectives than in narrow, problem-saturated views. Usually, when we don't have compassion for someone's struggles, it's because we don't understand the complexity of that person's experiences. Understanding and compassion greatly contribute to taking actions that are congruent with our intentions.

Consider How You Use Power

Although many principals and teachers feel powerless in their day-to-day work, they nevertheless have knowledge and status in their community, both of which can give them power in a variety of interactions. In a complex system like schools, it's valuable to regularly ask oneself, "If I can use power, does that mean I should?" People can easily misuse power and unwittingly repress new, cutting-edge ideas.
For example, one teacher I spoke with mentioned how, in her early teaching days, she decided to have her students work in small groups. Annoyed by the students' sometimes noisy industriousness, the principal would come by and roar, "When your teacher isn't in the classroom, I don't want to hear a sound out of you!" The teacher could never decide whether it was worse to stand up and reveal that she was, in fact, present or just wait until the principal finished glaring and left the room. "Whenever I tried to explain my methods," she said, "there was no respect for such innovation. Years later, one of my former students thanked me for these classes; she had never forgotten their humanness in the midst of the rigidity of the school system."
Misuse of power can easily trickle down to how educators handle students' mistakes and behaviors. Because schools tend to be isomorphic systems, what happens at one level often gets replicated at the level below. For example, a district's intolerance of a school's intricacies can indirectly contribute to a principal's overly critical eye, which in turn can affect teachers' tolerance levels toward students. Using power to solve a problem is often tempting because it may look like a quick solution and may even feel satisfying. But in reality, it can lead to more insidious problems, such as resentment, rebellion, gossip, and disconnection.
Deciding whether to use power can be a tough dilemma for principals who sometimes must make an unpopular choice for the best interest of the school. In many instances, it's worth exploring other avenues at the outset by actively listening to people's experiences, asking important questions, finding out what an issue really means, and most important, going slowly. Contextual and invisible information may be more important than the visible issue we're tempted to address with authority.
For example, I once worked with a principal who was confused by a teacher who had seemed enthusiastic with her class the first year she taught but who had become increasingly impatient with her students during the second year. Before making a drastic decision, the principal decided to see whether the teacher needed extra support. The principal encouraged the teacher's grade-level colleagues to consider taking some of the load off her shoulders and to reach out to her. In response to her colleagues' kindness, she eventually confided that her teenage son had recently attempted suicide. This serious event (invisible to the staff) left her feeling like an inadequate single mother, which in turn led her to constantly criticize herself and others (the visible issue). Being supported at such a time encouraged her to ask for what she needed. She eventually became the enthusiastic and creative teacher whom the school had initially appreciated, and a few years later, she won the district's best teacher of the year award.

Foster Appreciation

Educators are so giving of their time, energy, hearts, and sometimes even their own personal finances that appreciation needs to be at the forefront of school reform. Studies show that 30–50 percent of all teachers, including some of the country's most enthusiastic educators, drop out of the profession after five years because the education system fails to sustain their enthusiasm (Merrow, 2001; Smith & Eisterhold, 2010). The constant pressure to do more, coupled with underappreciation and negativity in staff relationships, creates a draining work environment.
It was astonishing to interview principals who described all they did to foster appreciation in their schools and then to discover, in our surveys, the extent to which the staff felt underappreciated. It became clear that a leader can give a large amount of appreciation, but when it's divided among so many staff members and students, each recipient may receive only a minute amount. For appreciation to truly exist in a school, community members need to circulate it.
For example, schools can have appreciation days for different grade levels or feature each educator in a weekly newsletter. They can reserve a number of staff meetings for development, team building, and discussion of educational values, addressing more bureaucratic issues through e-mails. Some schools have even playfully taken up ideas from "secret-success-spies" activities for students, in which students secretly notice other students' successes; in this version, teachers and administrators notice and share the successes of the educators in their school.
  • Create an Apple Award, which one teacher offers to another teacher each month. A teacher might, for example, recognize someone who was courageous enough to ask for support when he or she needed it.
  • Pick two names at a staff meeting, and encourage staff members to either write a note of appreciation or make a positive comment about those selected.
  • Hold an appreciation day twice each year when students write a note to anyone in the school who's made a difference. Educators look forward to these days; students' comments lift their spirits.
  • Save a small part of your budget for staff outings and development, such as interesting conferences, fun team-building retreats, and creativity workshops. If teachers aren't happy, no one will be happy.

First Things First

Teachers who feel appreciated, connected, and energized by their colleagues bring out the best in their students. Respected adults engage in respect-full interactions in which respectful students can blossom.
So how do we begin to create a respectful culture for our students? By first creating a supportive, uplifting, positive school culture for our teachers and other school staff members.

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370.

Beaudoin, M. N., & Taylor, M. (2004). Creating a positive school culture: How principals and teachers can solve problems together. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Beaudoin, M. N., & Taylor, M. (2009). Responding to the culture of bullying and disrespect: New perspectives on compassion, collaboration, and responsibility (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Merrow, J. (2001). Choosing excellence. New York: Scarecrow Education.

Smith, S., & Eisterhold, A. L. (2010). Ten missteps that will drive away teachers. Principal, 90(1), 42–47.

Weber, M. (2008). Fighting the consequences of negativity. School Administrator, 5(65), 1–2.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 112016.jpg
Promoting Respectful Schools
Go To Publication