July 2, 2014
Creating a Respectful Classroom Environment
“In our class: 1) everyone is allowed to feel they can work and learn in a safe and caring environment; 2) everyone learns about, understands, appreciates, and respects varied races, classes, genders, physical and mental abilities, and sexualities; 3) everyone matters; 4) all individuals are to be respected and treated with dignity and civility; and 5) everyone shares the responsibility for making our class, and the Academy, a positive and better place to live, work, and learn.”
This statement appears in the syllabus for an introductory sociology course. The syllabus is part of a collection of sample syllabi in the Teaching and Resources Innovations Library of the American Sociological Association (TRAILS). It also appears in an excellent analysis of 39 syllabi drawn from the TRAILS collection.
It reminded me of an event that occurred in one of my courses, probably during the late 80s. It was a junior-level course for communication majors. I don’t remember the topic of the day, but I do remember that, quite unrelated to the discussion, a student popped out with a very racist remark. The class went silent, or at least it seemed very still to me. I had no plan; I hadn’t ever imagined the situation that had just unfolded.
It had happened in a classroom with no diversity. Maybe that was a good thing because the remark didn’t relate to anybody in the room, so nobody was personally insulted and offended. But the lack of diversity was a bad thing, too. It’s easier for people to make racist comments when no one from that race or ethnic group is around. Further, those prejudicial remarks and feelings are more likely to continue when encounters with individuals from groups other than our own never occur.
I knew that I couldn’t just let the comment pass. So, I walked in the direction of the student, looked him in the eye with what I hoped was my most serious expression, and told him in no uncertain terms that comments like that were not appropriate or tolerated in this course or any other course. I spoke about the dark history of racism and its lingering presence in our society today. I called his remark degrading and insensitive, and I warned of dire consequences should such a comment be made in professional arenas. It was quite a soliloquy. When I finished, there was more silence — only now it felt uncomfortable. But I believed I had done the right thing.
I was using a weekly reaction paper in the course and every last paper I received that week mentioned the incident. I was surprised by the number who said that they felt the class also had a responsibility to respond. I shouldn’t have been the only one objecting. But one comment was particularly telling: “I don’t think that student will make another racist comment in this class, but I’m pretty sure he will continue to make racist remarks.” When I read that, I knew the writer was correct. I may have stood up for a climate of respect in the classroom, but I hadn’t done the more important thing—help the student understand that those comments are as damaging to those they target as they are to those who make them.
Jane Tompkins says that the classroom is a microcosm of the world. “It is the chance we have to practice whatever ideas we cherish. The kind of classroom situation one creates is the acid test of what it is one really stands for.” (p. 26) I like the opening statement of today’s post because it doesn’t leave the defining features of a course to chance. It proactively describes a vision for how a group of learners will operate and phrases that vision in such an inviting way—who wouldn’t want to find themselves working and learning with others on those terms?
Of course, putting a statement in the syllabus doesn’t create a classroom of respect. It’s the actions teachers take in providing leadership and modeling the type of behavior we expect. Students learn about climates of respect from us. The opening statement sets the standards and can be followed by teacher behaviors that actualize them. Is that enough to prevent racist, homophobic, elitist, and other prejudicial remarks? Probably not, but I’d wager it is a way to make them less likely to occur.
References: Sulk, G. and Keys, J. (2014). “Many students really don’t know how to behave!”: The syllabus as a tool for socialization. Teaching Sociology, 42 (2), 151-160.
Tompkins, J., (1991). Teaching like it matters.” Lingua Franca, August, 24-27.