Thursday, February 25, 2016

Will This Attack or Preserve the Dignity of a Child?

Lori and I are blessed with four kids, and over the years our family has been blessed by many great teachers who have helped our children grow and learn. Our oldest, Drew, is now in his first year of college. Cooper is a high school senior. Maddie is a high school freshman. And Emma is in 6th grade. All four kids have had so many positive experiences in school thanks to their teachers and principals.

But there have also been a handful of times that were not positive. You don't really ever forget when you feel your child's dignity was compromised. If you feel he or she was embarrassed by a teacher, it's hard to let it go. I think parents are just wired that way. We want to protect and defend our kids. And it angers me on a professional level, too.

As educators we are charged with always building stronger kids. Sometimes that means we have tough love and set them straight. Sometimes we have to discipline them. Not every situation is positive, but every situation can be used to build dignity and avoid tearing a child down. Every situation can be handled in a positive manner.

Using sarcasm. Cutting remarks. Public humiliation. No student should ever have to endure this type of behavior from an educator. All schools should work to create a culture where it is not acceptable to steal anyone's dignity. Schools should be a place where adults are committed to do everything possible to preserve respect.

I should also note that I understand teachers and principals are human too. We all make mistakes. I'm not angry about the times when I felt one of our kids was treated poorly. And I'm not accusing anyone of being malicious. I don't think there are many teachers who come to school and think today I'm going to make it my goal to ruin a kid's day. It's usually just a careless word or deed or a bad moment. It can happen to any of us.

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In fact, I'm sure there have been times I've said things that were not helpful, and that made a student feel less than. But that is never my intention. And I work very hard to communicate a high level of respect for all students. In fact, I always start the school year visiting with students about respect. I tell them up front, "I will never intentionally disrespect you. If I ever say or do something that makes you feel disrespected, please let me know so I can apologize." I then challenge them to treat their teachers and each other the same way. If nothing else, let's make sure that respect is important here.

Is it ever okay to take a child's dignity? Every reasonable person would likely say no, so why does it still happen? Teachers can lose patience, feel disrespected themselves, or just be having a bad day. We want to save face, feel in control, be shown respect. But we have to get past that. We can't let our feelings cause us to act unprofessionally. When you can respond to disrespect with love and care, it only makes you stronger. We must always model kindness, compassion, and humility. 

Recently I was in a situation where I felt a student's dignity was being compromised by an adult, and I was present. I was completely caught off guard and didn't really know how to respond in the moment. The student didn't seem too bothered by it, but I was very uncomfortable. Thankfully, the conversation turned in another direction. I later followed up and asked the adult about what happened, "How do you think (the student) felt when you said..." The adult was open to the feedback and seemed to understand how the words might have been hurtful. We had a good conversation.

I think we also have an obligation to step-in when we observe students stealing each other's dignity. There are a number of ways to do this without further embarrassing anyone. We can change the direction of the conversation, pull the student aside, or simply give a disapproving look to the offender. I had a teacher tell me once they didn't want to get involved when this type of thing happened. They said students need to learn to navigate these situations themselves to develop their social skills. I completely disagree. Our job is to create emotional safety. Students should be able to count on teachers to stick up for them.

There have been a few times I can remember where a teacher was openly critical of a student in front of the class, while the student was not present. Of course, this information made it back to the student, who was not happy. If the same information had been shared directly to the student in a private manner, there would be no concern. The teacher would be giving the student valuable feedback. We can never be too careful with our words. We should ask ourselves, "Will these words be beneficial to this situation? Will they serve to build-up or tear-down?"

Sometimes it's very obvious that dignity is being attacked. Other times it is more subtle. We need to question any practices in our schools that might chip away at dignity. Intervention programs are extremely popular right now in education. But I question the wisdom of endless remediation of students. I think it can be a constant reminder of a student's deficits and lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness toward school. I think we should give students extra support when they need it, but we need to be careful about how we do this. We need to build on students' strengths and help them find things they are passionate about. I think that's just as important as any of our academic goals.

Every teacher should be intentional about contributing to a culture of kindness and respect. We should always ask the question, "Will this attack or preserve the dignity of a child?"

Can you think of other examples of practices that might chip away at students' dignity? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below to respond. Or, share on Twitter or Facebook.

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