In my second year teaching, I was hit with the proverbial slap in the face when a student openly disrespected me to her peers. Julie was a sophomore at the time and as she was walking out of my classroom she said, ‘that guy is such an [nickname for donkey’s sphincter]!’ As a young teacher who, even 15 years into his career, is trying to figure out this whole classroom management thing, two scenarios from teaching school raced to my head
- Ignore the situation. Play it off as if you didn’t hear it. That will allow me, the teacher, to save face and I won’t have to punish the student who will now feel like I am always out to get her.
- Punish the student. Go into the hallway and demand that Julie come back to my room and apologize to me. Give her a lecture on respect and how you 1) don’t use that language in school, and 2) never use it to describe a teacher. This student needs to be reminded who is in charge.
Both of the scenarios ran through my head in a split second, but I choose unwritten, untraditional option #3. You didn’t know there was a 3rd option, did you?
I ran out of my room (yes, literally ran), leaving the few students who were in my room and who heard what Julie said wide-eyed and trailing after me to see what was about to happen. The entire time I am calling for Julie to stop, which she ignored by putting her head down and trying to get to her locker as quickly as possible. [Side note: why do teenagers think the area around their locker is like some invisible fortress adults can’t see through. You should hear about the things I have seen happen in front of lockers that students are totally oblivious to.] I get right up in front of Julie and say, ‘Excuse me. Did you just call me a nickname for donkey’s sphincter?’ (this time I actually used that phrase. I am still a teacher and swearing, even if you are repeating a student’s words is still a No-No). She got red-faced and tried stumbling out an apology, saying she really didn’t mean it. I said, ‘it was a simple yes or no question, did you call me a nickname for a donkey’s sphincter?’ She replied with a yes. I said, ‘Thank you. I wanted to make sure I heard you correctly.’ and I walked away back to my room, splitting a crowd of students who just stood there dumbfounded.
Every year on the first day of school I tell this story and every year I am met with the same wide-eyed look of shock. I tell them ‘you have every right not to like me. In fact, you can outright hate me. However, if you are going to say nasty things about me, say them to my face. I have worked hard for at least that bit of respect.'
Teaching is not about imparting information. It's about building relationships.