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Contempt of Teacher

Contempt of Teacher

Contempt of the teacher isn’t exactly a real thing. But it should be. It is the teacher equivalent of ‘contempt of cop.’

Wikipedia provides the following definition: “Contempt of cop” is law enforcement jargon in the United States for behavior by people towards law enforcement officers that the officers perceive as disrespectful or insufficiently deferential to their authority.

Replace the words that refer to police with teachers and the concept is clear. How often are discipline referrals generated by teachers for behavior they perceive as disrespectful? How many times have minor infractions escalated because an adult didn’t approve of a student’s tone or attitude? Why are we so easily triggered? And why do we think this is a new phenomenon?

Socrates is quoted as saying “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Again, replace a few words and this could have been uttered by any number of educational professionals yesterday, not 2,000 some odd year ago. How often do teachers lament the good old days with the students of yesteryear? How many times have teachers become bitter because they perceive that students today have changed so greatly? Why does this seem to happen generation after generation?

What does it look like in action?

Notice that this concept is not focused on whether or not contempt is being displayed. Instead, it is focused on the perception of a professional, in this case, an educator. To be fair, some students are genuinely, intentionally contemptuous. Most; however, are not. Even if they are, as educators, we hold the responsibility to respond professionally. Doing so is difficult and requires self-awareness and explicit training.

Picture a charter high school is an urban environment. Imagine a young English teacher managing classes of 28-35. This teacher has strong classroom management and builds meaningful relationships with students. One day, a student of hers, let’s call him Don, is given ISS. The ISS instructor, who we will call Mr. M, is an ex-military drill sergeant. Don is unlikely to respond well to Mr. M’s management style.

The teacher calls Mr. M before school and asks that he call her classroom if Don misbehaves. She feels confident she can prevent the two from engaging in escalating conflicts that lead to a suspension for the student.

In the middle of class, the phone rings. Students are working independently, so the teacher answers the phone. Immediately, Mr. M begins yelling about Don’s behavior. The teacher calmly asks Mr. M to put Don on the phone. He does not. She asks again with slightly more force. He continues to shout out all Don’s transgressions. She asks again…and again…and again. Finally, the teacher shouts back into Mr. M, “PUT HIM ON THE PHONE!”

33 students go from quietly working, to wide-eyed, stunned silence as they stare at the teacher. She barely registers the response of her class, she is so frustrated. Don comes to the phone. The teacher blurts “What is wrong with you today!?” There is a light pause and Don responds “Huh?”

At that moment in the vernacular of this particular city, ‘huh’ was considered the height of disrespect. The teacher reacts accordingly. As her class of students listens avidly, she proceeds to tear Don up one side and down the other. Though she never uses inappropriate language, the dressing down she delivers is epic. Within moments, Don is responding, “Yes, ma’am,” “No ma’am,” “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

The teacher begins to calm and reiterates her expectations for Don’s behavior yet again. As the conversation draws to a close, Don pauses and says “Ms. Teacher? Um, I’m, uh, sorry I said ‘huh’ before…for a little minute, I thought you was my mama.”

I was that teacher. I remember that moment vividly and I think I even smiled. Because at that moment, I realized what had happened. Don wasn’t a teenager with a lot of common sense. He had no impulse control. He also had no malice. His actions constantly landed him in trouble, which he accepted with good-natured ease. I had interacted with him and his mother often enough to realize I had used one of her favorite phrases “What is wrong with you today?”

Don didn’t say ‘huh’ to be rude or disrespectful. He literally could not compute what was happening. First, I told him I would check on him. Then, he heard Mr. M say he was calling me. Naturally, Don associated phone calls with calls home. So when I came over the phone and used his mother’s typically response to his nonsense. It just didn’t compute. The phone should mean mom, but Mr. M said my name, but I used mom’s words, but it was my voice. Without meaning to, I had utterly discombobulated him. He said ‘huh’ because the circumstances left him befuddled.

As soon as I realized what had happened, all my irk melted away. I accepted his apology and offered an apology for overreacting in return. We ended the conversation on a positive note. To the best of my recollection, Don made it through his time in ISS without further incident.

I was lucky. Don had enough forgiveness that I didn’t destroy our relationship. We had enough of a relationship that he was willing to apologize and tell me why he had responded that way. I had enough self-awareness to recognize immediately that I was triggered by something that wasn’t intended to be disrespectful. I caught a bad case of ‘contempt of teacher.’

When I reflect on this incident, which I have done many times, it always reminds me to check my reactions to student behavior. It is my role to deescalate conflicts and maintain my composure. I am the role model, the authority, and the adult. It has taken intentional effort and practice to cultivate my awareness in these situations. Now, I wonder how to help other teachers.

How can instructional coaches help teachers become self-aware? What explicit learning experiences can we provide for teachers? What else can Instructional Coaches do to identify and mitigate the consequences ‘Contempt of Teacher’ in our schools?

How can Instructional Coaches help teachers?

The first thing we can do is acknowledge the reality of this problem. Teachers who are easily offended by the behavior of young people tend to have more discipline and classroom management problems. Rigid ideas about what constitutes respect can escalate problems exponentially. Too often, teachers expect punishment instead of examining motive.

Next, we need to find ways to introduce this concept to teachers and confront them with the ways they contribute to and participate in quickly escalating power struggles. Teachers often don’t recognize the attitudes they hold or how those attitudes can impact the classroom experiences of their students. Moreover, if we can present teachers with examples of this phenomenon and have them analyze them, they might be more able to make the connection to their own practices (emphasis on might).

Another strategy we can employ is to provide teachers with training in conflict management and deescalation. It is important to acknowledge that classroom management and conflict management are NOT the same thing. Conflict management and deescalation require a specific set of practiced skills that include self-awareness, situational awareness, and conflict resolution. Classroom management tends to focus on establishing routines, getting and keeping attention, and making behavioral expectations clear.
Though teachers are expected to manage classes of diverse young personalities, they are rarely given specific training in how to handle conflict effectively. Teaching with Love and Logic is one powerful resource.

Instructional coaches can also provide training in cultural awareness for teachers. Teachers often perceive certain behaviors as disrespectful that are, in fact, learned cultural behaviors. Over-talking is one example. In many cultures, individuals engaged in conversation begin talking as or before another person finishes speaking. Doing so indicates attention and engagement. One easily recognizable example is Italian family dynamics. In the classroom; however, over-talking is almost always seen as disrespectful interrupting. Coaches can identify the cultural backgrounds of students and related cultural behaviors that are problematic. They can then provide targeted, relevant professional development for teachers. Exercises like Harvard’s Project Implicit can be useful here.

How can Instructional Coaches help administrators?

Many of the things that help teachers will also help administrators. Administrators who are aware of how ‘contempt of teacher’ contributes to the school culture have an opportunity to promote positive change.

First, instructional coaches need to introduce the concept to administrators. Administrators need support to analyze their own attitudes and recognize which staff members might be especially sensitive to perceived student disrespect. Many school leaders experience ‘contempt of teacher’ in the behaviors students, parents, and other teachers. If leaders can recognize when and how this concept causes unnecessary problems, they can respond accordingly.

Administrators also need training in conflict management and deescalation. Practices like Restorative Justice can positively impact school culture, but need effective leadership to be successful and sustainable. Several Instructional coaches can help leaders connect programs, practices, and school culture.

Finally, and most importantly, administrators can help educate students about how and why they unintentionally trigger negative responses. Students benefit when they are made aware of what behaviors are causing problems in the classroom. In addition, many students need both validation of cultural behaviors and specific, explicit instruction in alternative behaviors that are more situationally appropriate for school.

Administrators have the opportunity to support teachers in learning not to respond to perceived ‘contempt of teacher.’ They can also teach both students and teachers to code switch to meet behavioral norms. Administrators can also create a culture that focuses on culturally responsive classroom management. In addition, they can avoid negative assumptions about teacher and student motivations when managing conflicts and discipline issues.

Final Thoughts

Instructional coaches are uniquely placed to recognize ‘contempt of teacher’ and do something about it. We don’t have all the answers. We are; however, able to provide professional development and resources that can shift the conversation. We can encourage the school community to examine the intent of perceived disrespect to avoid escalation.

We can make ‘contempt of teacher’ a real thing.

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