July 2nd, 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.

12 comments on “Creating a Respectful Classroom Environment

  1. Interesting that you mentioned racism and sexism and completely omitted ageism that is alive and well in society especially in health care. Yet ageism is the only one of the big three that is universally applicable to everyone. Chronological age is used by most people to make choices; yet the number is the least of the factors that are operative in decision-making. Did you intend for age to be under the umbrella of "physical and mental abilities"? That implied assumption proves the ageism presence.

    Sharon Harper, PhD, RN

  2. Thanks for the reminders. I don't know whether this is universal, but I sense much more fear in my students than used to be there– I'd call it "social fear." Many of them don't naturally reach out to others in the class, don't like being assigned to groups with people they don't know, and certainly don't like having to turn their phones off in class (I stop part way through class for "text breaks" these days–that helps greatly). But anything we can do to teach/show how strangers of any variety can be turned into friends is going to help everybody, short term and long term. Thanks.

  3. In a recent course, I had a student make a comment that was equivalent to holocaust denia (but a denial on a different racial issue)l. I was quite stunned by the remark and it took me a moment to collect myself to point out the errors in his claim. The student didn't back down at all and another student spoke up in his defense. The course is related to ethics and is a very international course. Almost all of the students were from other countries and unfamiliar with the issue the student mentioned. It was at the end of the class so I posted accurate information for all students in the course webpage and provided a brief summary of the issue at the start of the next class. The student who made the remark wasn't in the next class and didn't show up for a couple of classes. The incident still troubles me a couple of ways. First, it bothers me to give a passing grade in an ethics course to a student who holds such abhorrent views. Second, I do have concerns that telling the student that his viewpoint was quite execrable and truly detestable, I could end up giving students the impression that they can't freely express their opinions. Aren't we supposed to encourage open and free discussion and debate of ideas? By telling someone 'in no uncertain terms that comments like that are not appropriate or tolerated' do we discourage other students from making appropriate comments?

  4. The campus I teach at serves a large number of ESL students from over 100 countries. Because of the diversity on our campus, we hold regular programs and seminars on diversity, hate and acting out of respect. Naturally, there are always a handful of students that won’t “get it,” but overall, our programs are working and they are used as a model for other campuses in our district. We also hold programs where students from each country can share their culture with others. Familiarity breeds respect and erases misconceptions.

  5. In our Health Sciences course we have added "cultural competence" component to our course. It is usually delivered from someone with a different cultural background. Their stories and descriptions of how such actions/points of view have impacted their culture is more effective that my standing and lecturing/discussion on the topic. It has proven quite effective and a nice break from traditional content delivery.

  6. I do not like to live in the 80s. We did not learn anything from all the incidences. Today we do not use the 'N' word, but the 'T' word.
    The media is doing a great job of saying the word 'Terrorist' implying a Muslim. Media has done a great job of discrimination against Muslims by using such terms as Islamist. Historically, we in this country have to 'discriminate' or 'hate' some one. Every one gets their turn. Such as the Japanese Americans were discriminated, but not the German American. There was a time when the African Americans were not considered humans. Today is the turn of the Muslims. Some day this will change, hopefully during my life time.

    • I don't disagree with your analysis of the media's knee-jerk equation of Muslim with "Islamist terrorist", but I wanted to point out that during WWI German-Americans were subjected to treatment at least as dire as the Japanese-Americans were during WWII. Many were jailed, forced to sell their businesses and flee their homes, German-language publications almost ceased to exist (German had been the second most common language printed in the US until then), and German-speaking Americans were punished in many ways for using German in public. By WWII, the outward celebration of one's German-ness was restricted to drinking beer and playing Polkas. After WWII, German-Americans were mortified by what their cultural homeland had done, and were usually happy to no longer be associated with Germany. Many thousands Anglicized their names. It is not comparable to the poor treatment received by some (and goodness knows it's not a contest any would like to win!), but it should also not be forgotten as part of the history of discrimination you relate above.

      • Tom, I am glad you pointed out the treatment of Germans during WWI. Actually, during that time there was a bank named German American National Bank in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was changed to Lincoln National Bank.

  7. Mohammed highlights an important omission from your opening statement: an appreciation of different religious ideologies. The reason this is omitted, of course, is because a true appreciation for such ideas in the classroom would mean that students would be permitted to disapprove of unbiblical lifestyles without being called homophobes. If you want to get respect in the classroom right, start with your own biases.

  8. I teach courses in religion and one of my course objectives is for students to "demonstrate tolerance, respect and appreciation for beliefs, values and practices other than their own." I was taken aback when, in discussion with other professors in my discipline, one of the professors felt that such an expectation was going too far. This professor happens to be deeply religious and he noted that he has no respect (much less appreciation) for a religion like Satanism (my thought on that is that if he truly understood what this religion teaches, and was open minded enough, he should find at least something about it worth appreciating – but maybe I am too open minded to think that everything has to have some value somewhere?). The rest of us were willing to back down on "appreciation" but tried to emphasize that "respect" need not mean agreement. He would not back down on his point and we ended up agreeing that students should interact "respectfully" toward the PEOPLE of other religions. I am not sure one can really separate people from their religion. If you don't respect my religion how can you respect me? Religion is so much a part of a person's identify – as much as the other "isms" noted in this article. But religion does seem distinctly different from these other "isms". For deeply religious people, any other religion can seem to be an affront to their own. Judaism's rejection of Jesus as the Messiah is a direct affront to the essential Christian message.

    Of course, even a deeply committed Christian should be able to appreciate Judaism at the least, because it was the religion of Jesus and his disciples and much of 1st century Judaism (including the Hebrew Bible) influenced what Christianity became. But I've had Christian students write papers about each religion that pick each apart in noting what is "wrong" with them (most often based on the other religions not being "Biblically sound" and rejecting Jesus as the savior) without any balance regarding what is good and valuable in these other religions (not to mention their objections being based on Christian bias/interpretation which these students don't even recognize as a bias). That's not the sort of attitude I hope my students take away from their study of religion in my classes. Then, when I insist that they display a more balanced and open minded perspective, I get accused of downgrading their work because I don't personally agree with what they have said. They accuse me of not respecting them and their religion! Seems we just can't win.

    Does tolerance has to extend to tolerating intolerance?

    • Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4.

      • thanks for the quick response! I suppose if Satanists (or atheists) are intolerant of Christianity then Christians ought not be expected to tolerate them? Perhaps they both need a lesson in tolerance.

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