Want to Know Why Students Are Disrespectful in School? Let’s Listen to a Student.

Engineering Interns from the districk go back to high school

Tommy Raskin looks at the issues that he sees as spawning  disrespect in school.

I have long wondered why there is so much disrespect in school. Students frequently scoff at the teachers trying to help them, and teachers sometimes humiliate their students. Children squabble amongst themselves, compete relentlessly for high marks and cheat on tests, and educators berate students for their laziness, insubordination, and ungratefulness. Why?

No single social factor can alone explain this troubling phenomenon. It’s true that students are too infrequently taught civility by their guardians, that poverty demoralizes children and diverts their energies away from academics, and that some students vie for the “bad kid” image to impress their peers. But disrespect seems deeply anchored at school beyond what students may bring from home.

The schooling structure itself too often disrespects students. To see this pervasive reality, we have to drop the idea that school is only incidentally flawed, with a bad teacher here and there, and instead accept its systemic disregard for the thoughts, feelings and lives of the young people it’s designed to educate. In confronting the culture of unkindness, our starting point shouldn’t be the first crass words angry students utter but rather the conditions producing such unpleasantness, for students at the average American school are rightly, if inarticulately, outraged by the coercion, harassment, and drudgery to which they are subjected by school authorities. When educational administrations remove these affronts to student self-actualization, they will leave the classroom conducive to authentic respect between teachers and students.


The “big deal,” if to some people it’s still unclear, is that school produces an inevitably combustible combination of anti-democratic practice with intimate interaction between the powerful and powerless. I don’t really care that my crossing guard is undemocratically elected, for our interaction is minimal (and usually pleasant) during the 15 seconds I’m under her jurisdiction. In contrast, teachers subject students to inescapable tedium for eight hours daily and are, at least theoretically, responsible for their students’ intellectual growth into adulthood. Would we, in a democracy, ever ask grown-ups to blindly cede that much of their time, power, and future prospects to people and projects over which they have so little control?

There isn’t much work in kindergarten, but as the school years progress, teachers assign readings from which many students perceive no gain and that often spawn resentment and despondency. Outside of class, students are reproached for their tardiness shuffling from classroom to classroom, for not presenting a “hall pass” upon request, for wearing their hats indoors, and so on. At my public schools, the dress code and hall pass rules, even if justifiable on paper, were used as constant excuses for teachers to insensitively shout down students and belittle them. In middle school, an unfamiliar teacher ordered that I “stop!” and then stalled me for five minutes because she couldn’t discern the date I had written on my hall pass.

So, yes, at certain points, dispirited kids openly text in class and groan to their teachers that “there’s too much work” and that “school sucks” and that “none of this information matters!” Like many students, I decried these petty resistances as impolite and counterproductive, but I also appreciated the grievances underlying them. School is a bummer when you’re constantly bombarded with negative affronts outside the classroom and have little say over what you learn within it.

Those of us who care about teachers should thus outspokenly promote democratic education, by which I mean education in which students themselves participate actively, for this is the type of schooling towards which students naturally feel the least enmity. Unsurprisingly, students don’t resist lessons when they have a say over what they’re being taught. In democratic schools, any dress code and hall pass rules coexist with restrictions on teacher belligerence and are under the purview of teacher-student courts to which students can address their qualms about arbitrary harassment. Students should also be unionized so that they can jointly and forcefully direct their suggestions for grading policies, absence policies, and curricular subjects to their teachers. In other words, children should actually be given some power to craft the schools into which the state forces them.

A student’s snide remark to a teacher is neither the beginning nor the end of disrespect. The student’s disrespect of the teacher is indefensible, as is the school’s disrespect of the student who, after asking for an explanation, cannot get a clear answer as to why he must participate in a certain activity, why he cannot walk the hallways without being made into an object of suspicion, and why he cannot study the subject matter of most interest to him.

Underlying respect ultimately are non-coercion, cooperation, and honest communication. When administrators adopt them over petty harassment and surveillance, schools will cease to be combat zones of incivility and insult.

Photo: europedistrict / flickr

About Tommy Raskin

Tommy is a frequent contributor to The Nation online and a co-host of The Angle on WAMH 89.3 FM.  He tweets @TommyRaskin and blogs at tommyraskin.org.


  1. If teachers “subject” students to drudgery, pedantry, and misery it’s because administrators and legislators force their hands. Federal education policy is ruining America’s schools because it’s created by philistine legislators who in large part have no appreciation for the arts, music, or the humanities. Obsessed with the corporate model of management and pegging teacher’s jobs and schools’ funding on such worthless criteria as mission statements and student test scores, school administrators are turning teachers into automatons and pencil pushers who are pressured to teach only what a student needs to know so he/she can correctly bubble in a SCANTRON sheet to determine whether his/her teacher gets to keep his/her job and whether the school will have its budget slashed for failing to “objectively” prove its “effectiveness.” Are there bad teachers? Sure there are. But the problem is systemic. If teachers could be free to actually *teach* and given the leeway to experiment and think outside the box without fear of the repercussions of poor performance on standardized tests, I bet a lot more kids would treat their teachers with more respect.

    • Interesting- I think we are a society that has too casually conflated the current “corporate model of management” with effectiveness, efficiency, righteousness, and desirability; it is, presently, virtually sacrosanct. In the ‘corporate model’ things like arts, music, and humanities (as well as anything else without immediate, significant, and quantifiable commercial value & practical application) fall by the wayside, because of the perception that there’s not enough short-term gain in it. If we believe that the highest & most efficient state of evolution is only what we can chart on a quarterly profit sheet, then of course, we aren’t going to look for alternatives.  

  2. “Would we, in a democracy, ever ask grown-ups to blindly cede that much of their time, power, and future prospects to people and projects over which they have so little control?”

    Uh… held a job lately? (Or ever listened to the lyrics from that old Dolly Parton song “9 to 5”?)
    I’m not questioning the underlying morality of your quote, but with regard to it, frankly, many adults have to do so- for most of us, the labor market is a buyer’s market, not a seller’s market. Many people would love to have the power to leverage a five or six figure salary with a corner office… but we have to make do with what we can, which, is often a situation where the employer (and/or their competitor) dictates the terms to us.

    • I think the key word in that quote you picked out is “blindly.” The fact that grown-ups have a susbstantial say over where they work means that they’re not “blindly” ceding their power in the sense Raskin argues. Students are “outraged by the coercion, harassment, and drudgery” of school– as they well should be.

      • Perhaps. Not to get too far off topic, or too philosophical; but I don’t feel that adults DO have quite such a substantial amount of autonomy as one might tend to believe. 

        We believe in the illusion of choice and the illusion of freedom & latitude; we all pay lip-service to it. But individually, situationally, and collectively, we are often (for better, or for worse) rather blindly ceding the power we assume we have- whether that faith or optimism is justified (or whether we even really do have an alternative) is another matter. School is a microcosm of adult (or one-day-to-be adult) life: If there’s coercion, harassment, drudgery & compromises there, then it shouldn’t be that unusual to find it lurking in the adult world too (which, typically, is no better, and no worse).

  3. I honestly believe teachers would show more respect if they were given it. Students talking and using smart phones in class is just about as disrespectful as one can be, by ignoring someone trying to help you. You can claim the chicken and the egg argument for the source of those feelings, but teachers are professionals; students are sleep-deprived hormone-driven teenagers unlikely to show respect even when it’s given to them time and time again.

    As a side note: “…teachers subject students to inescapable tedium.” Really? All teachers? Your claim is very one sided.

    • You’re right that using cell phones in class is rude– that’s why Raskin advocates against it. Students should always be respectful, and the school can help facilitate that process by being respectful of students themselves. Respect is reciprocal; it’s a two-way street. Take a look at the systemic disrespect of students in school that Raskin talks about and you’ll know where we need to begin to make a change.

  4. I believe that democracy should be a reward for good behaviour. If kids act respectfully, to themselves, their peers and their teachers then they have earned the right to be part of the democratic process of having their voices heard. Engaging kids through ‘ownership’ is an excellent motivator and small decisions could be taken to a class vote. However, it’s important to remember, the educational system is a tremendous precursor to the employment system, where democracy is not always the foundation of every employer. Kids can learn a tremendous amount from the hierarchy of authority – how to respect it, avoid aggravating it, and more importantly, how to succeed within it. Rules, dress codes, and academic expectations are all part of a system that aims to keep things balanced, fair, and orderly; the way things will likely be in the real-world of future employment.

    • Education as a process should be optimized for the education itself and the experience that comes along with it, not as preparation for one of many possible hypotheticals.

  5. It’s not so much the idea of inequality that bothered me, as a young teenager, but the idea that age and authority, alone, might be enough to dismiss an individual’s thoughts, personal experiences, and autonomy. That’s what I think the problem is for most students, both at home and at school, though the crucible of school makes it much more pronounced. I had a much bigger problem trying to sit still in church or sunday school for the same reasons. It seemed like a one way, condescending, discussion which I didn’t feel contributed to putting my own life experiences in perspective, or even the ability to articulate them so that I would have had the confidence to run my own life as an adult. That is the point of having parents and teachers: to gradually help kids learn coping mechanisms, take on responsibility, learn adaptabilit, to learn who they are in a safe place so that they can go out in the world on their own and be able to do those things successfully or at least have some resilience to begin again from setbacks. Not getting feedback from the student and adjusting the discussion to guide accordingly is dehumanizing in that it seems to require students to paste over their real ideas with the official accepted one, rather than teaching them to think independently. Why else should we study Engish lit, for example, if we are not going to discuss those hypothetical scenarios of human behavior, what the author was trying to discuss, the context of the audience in his or her own time, how society has changed and stayed the same given students’ own responses. It’s not just read a book, take a quiz on the plot. But that’s how much education has been enervated from what it could have been.

  6. The kind of classroom environment that would be created if teachers were forced to get the votes of their students to keep their jobs would not be one conducive to education.

  7. I am not yet convinced that the sum total of your complaints have as much credence as say.Sure, there is always some valid criticism that can be lobbied against most mega institutions. Nonetheless,students disrespecting teachers as a response is unacceptable.As is teachers disrespecting students.I suppose my primary objection to your argument is that it seems to encourage a kind of equality between the administration and students.This is problematic.A philosophy professor I studied under asked the class,Please raise you hand if you are between 18 and 25. More than 3/4 of the hands went up. I am 50 years old,he responded.I speak several languages,have lived in several countries and have taught philosophy and humanities for over 20 years. You are not my equal. One could hear the rustle of clothes against skin and fabric as students anxiously shifted their weight in their seats.Several hands jabbed the stale classroom air,waving like flags on the fourth of July.I am not finished yet,said the professor.Not only are you young and inexperienced,so is your culture and your country.I come from a culture that is five thousand years old.In America, once a person becomes a certain age they are said to be an adult.In this country,old people don’t live with their families anymore.They no longer live out their days teaching their families life lessons,telling stories, dispensing wisdom.Eighteen year olds,as adults, are not equal to someone who is fifty years old. Would you like to hear a story that’s one thousand years old.”He slowly panned the room and not a single hand in protest went up.You make some points worthy of discussion.However,the student teacher relationship is not one that is driven by or rooted in equality.It isn’t s’pose to be democratic either.

    • I disagree with this. I feel that this, as many adult positions are wont to do, dehumanize children and teenagers. There is a feeling of superiority that comes with experience that, while in some instances it may be warranted, should never be showed or forced upon the students. This is for two reasons.

      One, people at this age naturally rebel or react against authority. The pressing of superiority and hierarchy upon students is ineffective, and hampers their educational growth. If hierarchy in and of itself is a goal, that is a problem. The rigid gap between teacher and student causes the disrespect, which you admitted, should not be kept in place simply because there ”may be” an intellectual or experiential gap between the teacher and the student. The education and growth of the student are the ONLY goals in this environment, and this stratification that breeds negative attitudes hurts the student’s education.

      The second reason is that the ‘moral’ or ‘actual’ justification for the gap, the one you gave, that the teachers have more experience and thus should be above, also hurts the teacher student relationship, but this time from the side of the teacher. Adults in general tend to dehumanize children and teenagers. While with peers people imagine themselves in that situation, when looking at people you see as “below” you, you generalize their behavior more. The farther removed you get from a situation, whether by age, economic status or another factor, the move you see the person in that situation as a stereotype. With age, this comes with a feeling of unwarranted superiority. I remember that when I was younger, my thoughts may have been different, but they were no less intelligent, on a basic level. While slightly more impressionable, I was still fully capable of critical thought. If someone pointed out and explained an adult position on something, completely, as if I was an adult, I could respond to it intelligently and either agree or refute it. Adults, much of the time, don’t know the teen’s or kids situation, and so they assume, and moreover assume they are right, since age supposedly brings wisdom. I have yet to see any evidence of that. It definitely brings an idea of possessing wisdom, but it doesn’t bring wisdom itself. That time and experience brings wisdom is not an indisputable fact. It only cements ideas into your brain stronger.

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