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When Silence Is Not Golden

Respect: To Be Given and To Be Expected

The other day I got an email from a counselor at school saying that a student of mine thinks that I am not nice to him. She suggested that I rectify this situation by having a one-on-one conversation with him asap. My response was one of those quickly written emails that we often come to regret, but in this case I have no regret for the quick-write and quick-send. I told her that I did have a tough talk with him that morning because he was supposed to have stayed after school with me a few days earlier to make up some work he missed while on vacation. I had told him that I would stay and wait for him. Not only did he not come, but two days later he still didn’t find it in himself to explain or apologize—and I demanded that he apologize to me, in a rather strong tone and with a mini-lecture thrown in.

There is just no way that I will be reprimanded for not over-coddling a teen’s ego. Seriously, at what point does a child need to stop listening only to his inner whiner and start learning that there are rules of decency that he needs to adhere to?

Another student told his mother that I yell at him. Besides the obvious fact that these kids have no conception of what a real yell is, they seem to equate a tough and forceful tone that is ever so slightly above the normal teacher tone as a yell. But I was having none of it. I told the mother that, yes, I have directed tough words at her son because he seems to think that making accents of different ethnic groups (his own included) is funny and is entertainment for the other immature boys in the class, and because I have forced him to throw out his green gum with which he likes to make bubbles during class.

Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching this age group. A number of teachers and people in the general public have told me that they could never teach freshman, but I enjoy them—up to a point. (Let me state unequivocally that the girls are not only mature, but they are well aware of the immaturity of the boys in their midst, and they are delightful.) At that point (I mean the point at which they are disrespectful and oblivious to some basic societal norms), I become a teacher whose lesson cannot possibly be evaluated by a bubble chart—it’s when I demand that they learn how to act and behave properly. It’s when I forget to modulate my tone and say what I think as if this child were my own child.

At what point do children lose the license to excuse their own bad behavior? And why, honestly, did they ever get that license in the first place?

It could be that I’m tough, as people have said, but I don’t see how expecting children to behave with respect to their elders and each other is tough or beyond a basic norm? Honestly, I’m tired of feeling that I’m doing something wrong when all that I am doing is trying to educate the whole child. Do parents really want their children to keep getting passes for work they don’t do and behavior that is reproachable? Sure, I admit that you can live a successful life even if you don’t understand Shakespeare, but what can you do if you don’t know what the word “courtesy” means?

I fear that the focus on teaching to the test and evaluating teachers based to a great degree on their student’s work will give too much power to children and lessen an understanding that they are to respect their elders and those who are trying to help them. It might come as a surprise to some, but not every child wants or knows how to do well, and kids know how to get back at someone they think has slighted them. A friend of mine teaches at the graduate school level and she has to deal with student evaluations which often read like mini-vendettas because they don’t like the amount of reading she has assigned and because there might not have been a syncing of personalities, not to mention disgruntled students who didn’t get an A.

Backing down and letting their behavior slide is not an option. I’d rather move right along to my Plan B career choice of working with the geriatric crowd than bend the understanding of respect that I was taught by example as a child.

We seem to be looking to other cultures for guidance on how to raise our children. We’re looking to China with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, and France with Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman, and a mélange with How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (From Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between) by Mei-Ling Hopgood, but how about we stick to what we were taught as children—or at least unearth some of the key lessons from our overworked minds. It might have been a different time, and yes, it might not have been the best of times, but weren’t there some basic guidelines that were imparted on us and which we have, perhaps, slacked off on imparting to the next generation? Why do we excuse our children from the things that were absolute bottom lines for us? I didn’t even know that you could turn in homework late until I was in graduate school.  

Fellow teachers talk about students who send, via email, requests for them to write letters of recommendation for colleges that are due in a day, and then not even receiving thank you letters from those students when they delayed their weekend grading to write the letters. Expectations, surely, are warped.

An I-whatever has become de rigueur for this generation. How about requiring behavior that reflects an understanding that the world is not all about “I” before the next purchase?


Words from some very wise men: "Teach Your Children," by Crosby Stills Nash and Young.



I think when we were growing up, there was an understanding that if a child misbehaved, basically any adult within reach felt the authority or right (?) to step in and give a reprimand. We seem to have gone away from that mode, and if the kids aren't learning any kind of rules of behavior or civility at home, then where will they learn? But if the parents don't want teachers or other adults to teach their children the things they haven't themselves taught them, either because they as parents don't care or don't know any better, well, then we end up with a society of uncouth, ill-mannered people.

And I guess that's what we get.

But I admire you for at least trying.


The other day I gave a shout out to manners. I told one of my classes that when they are walking anywhere and they see someone older than them they are to step aside--and for the boys to do the same for women. You would be amazed at the things they just don't know. Manners, maybe they all need a basic class in manners. It could be a precursor to an anti-bullying lecture.


Great post. It seems like more and more people are rude and ill-mannered and that's almost becoming a indication of toughness and hip. Being courteous and civil is beginning to become thing of the past. If we don't instill these values in children it is not going to get any better.

J.R. Neumiller

You rebel against your many husbands' authority, yet you expect children to obey your authority? Granted to you by Whom?


Rebel against my husband's authority? Since when does a husband have authority over his wife? And why would a husband who demeans and insults his wife be deserving of anything from her?


AG, thanks for your comment. It seems that we need a Common Courtesy 101 class when kids enter high school or college, at the latest. On the positive side, I do think that a lot of kids just aren't taught what should be considered basic manner, you know, like stepping out of the way when someone is walking opposite them or holding the door open for someone carrying books and bags. Small steps could lead up to big ones.

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