Why do you deserve respect??

If you have been following the “current” ed-reform movement you have certainly heard the cries from teachers stating “We get no respect.”  They are sometimes followed by “We should have more respect like the teachers in (fill in latest trendy foreign country here).”  By the way, I placed the word current in  “quote” because if you look at the “current” ed-reform movement, it is really the same issues being recycled from all the way back to the early 19th century.  From testing, to teacher evaluation, to ending rote learning and focusing on creative thinking, it all was being debated way back when…

But this current bit about teachers getting no respect does puzzle me.  I never know what to think about it.  The problem is that I have known many teachers, and my kids have had teachers who don’t deserve much respect from the public.  But…I have also lost respect for doctors.  After two recent health issues I was amazed at how many doctor’s misdiagnosed what I had and would not listen to what I told them which would have cut years off of chasing down a diagnosis.  But doctors still seem to have the public’s respect…and fancy cars.  I started reading a new book today and I did find the authors take on why teachers don’t get the same respect as other professionals very interesting:

It is one of the complaints of the teachers that the public does not defer to their professional opinion as completely as it does practitioners in other professions.  At first sight it might seem as though this indicated a defect either in the public or in the profession; and yet a wider view of the situation would suggest that such a conclusion is not a necessary one. The relations of education to the public are different from those of any other professional work.  Education is a public business with us, in a sense that the protection and restoration of personal health or legal rights are not.  To an extent characteristic of no other institution, save that of the state itself, the school has power to modify the social order.  And under our political system, it is the right of each individual to have a voice in the making of social policies as, indeed, he has a vote in the determination of political affairs.  If this be true, education is primarily a public business, and only secondarily a specialized vocation.  The layman, then, will always have his right to some utterance on the operation of the public schools.

Opening paragraph from Moral Principles in Education by John Dewey 1909

I think that people can feel at ease disrespecting teachers because almost everyone has been through school, so they think they know what a teacher does and feel as though that gives them the right to dictate what direction any reforms should take.  Kind of like me deciding to tell the engineers how to build a better bridge because I have driven over 1000’s in my life.  I think teachers make it easy for the public to dictate reform because for the most part we are still doing the same things that were done when any me member of the public was in school.  There was a time when I could question a mechanic’s diagnosis, and debate the merits of a repair…heck, I might even consider doing the repair myself.  But have you looked under the hood of a new car lately?  Even independent mechanics can nor longer fix many new cars because they lack the proprietary computer codes and specialized instruments needed by new cars.  For a member of the public who sat through 12 years of sitting in rows, doing worksheets, reading textbooks, memorizing for tests, and writing essays….they do know what it is like to be in school today, and they didn’t like it then, and they don’t like it now, and they want change…but they just don’t know what is possible.

If someone asked me to make a new bridge, I would go with something I would think is stronger than the one I was being asked to replace.  More concrete, bigger footings, thicker steel beams, more steel beams…just take what I know and make it bigger and thicker. I would never have thought of building a bridge like the ones below.

Zakim Bridge
Boston, MA
Sundial Bridge
Redding, CA

I would never have come up with an innovative idea because I simply could not imagine something vastly different than the bridges that I have driven on.  Ask people who have never “driven” in classroom to be innovative and you get NCLB.

When I went from teaching in the hood, to the ‘burbs, I noticed an increase in the lack of respect for teachers.  Parents would frequently complain, and felt entitled to stop anything their kid complained about.  Not sitting in the classroom, they could not understand how doing something other than more sitting in rows, doing worksheets, reading textbooks, memorizing for tests, and writing essays could be good for their kids.  I will always remember the quote my first year, “My kid will no longer be doing group work.  It will not help him achieve his future goal of becoming a Navy SEAL.”  A few years later, “My son will not be using a computer in your class because he is going to be a mechanic and won’t need to know computers.”  The parents simply could not understand what we were doing in class and interpret what they kids were telling them.  I was feeling disrespected.

What I decided to do was to start having a parent’s meeting during the first week of school.  I show them loads of examples from past years, share student evaluations with them, give them my background, answer lots and lots of questions…honestly, give them reasons why we will be doing things differently, remind them about what they experienced in the past, and give them a glimpse of their child’s future.  I ask them to trust me.  I ask them to be patient.  I ask them to put aside their preconceived notions of what school “should be,” and instead ask them to take part in my dream of what it could be.  I ask that we stay on the same team, because sometimes the one thing a teacher can do that a parent cannot, is to see their child objectively without the family history and expectations getting in the way. What I hope happens by the end of the night is that I have earned their respect, their trust.  I need it because things will be very different for their kid in my class.

I had a parent come up to me at the end of this year and thank me her child’s experience.  She said, “The beginning of the year was very difficult for me, but I kept remembering the meeting when you asked parents to trust you, and so I did.”

As teachers we demand respect…maybe it is time we start showing why we deserve it.


  1. Fantastic! I am not planning on building any bridges soon but I am going to ask parents to trust me for a bit while I change things around for their child.

  2. Paul, I love the argument you make here. We do have to give them a reason to trust us and particularly when we do things a bit differently. All food for thought as I plan my orientation.

  3. I always start the year with some trust in the teachers—trust that they know the material they are teaching and that they can inspire the kids to learn it. A few teachers lose my respect by being incompetent, either at the subject they are teaching or at dealing with kids. A few gain more respect from me by being superb teachers—very knowledgeable in their field and inspiring the kids to want to learn more than one would have thought possible.

    Most teachers end up in the middle: ploddingly competent, but uninspiring. I trust them to do their job for most students, but not necessarily how to figure out how to reach students with unusual needs.

  4. And I think from the way many votes go, the public wants to trust their teachers. It sucks when a really bad teacher does something that breaks that trust bond for the rest of us. That is why it’s so important for us to keep celebrating all the wonderful things we’re doing and how we are deserving of our parents’ trust.

  5. I am so sorry, I do not leave more insightful comments on your blog, but I love reading it and find your voice and ideas refreshing, profound and very well aligned with my own.

    Although I do not comment, I am hear, I read and I really enjoy your work.

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