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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Feb 1, 2023

Give dignity: countering a culture of disrespect and dehumanization in school

By Melissa Forbes

Instructional coach, MTSS coordinator

Give dignity: countering a culture of disrespect and dehumanization in school

By Melissa Forbes

I once worked at a high school where the phrase “give dignity” was tossed around like candy off parade floats.

One student calling another an ugly name? “Hey, now, give dignity.” A contentious tone erupting at a team meeting? “Teachers, let’s not forget to give one another dignity.”

I was brand new to the school and not at all familiar with its culture and traditions. Since I’d recently moved from out of state, I didn’t ask about “give dignity” or anything else that confused me. I didn’t want to look dumb. So I stayed quiet and worked hard. And hoped I’d eventually get it.

Eventually, I did.

Most of the kids at this school lived in poverty or gang-troubled neighborhoods. A majority were not U.S. citizens, and most did not speak English as their first language.

If ever there was a group of people used to not being on the receiving end of dignity, this was it.

Everything about their lived experiences shouted indignity. Were they treated as humans as they crossed the border and were ushered into detention centers? Did they feel worthwhile packed into tiny apartments with many folks sharing one bathroom? How dignifying an experience was it to walk through a sea of concrete and litter on their way to school?

As you might imagine, quite a few of our students struggled to speak to each other with kind words. And yet, the faculty worked hard — really hard — to be gentle and respectful to those children and to each other at every turn.

I saw the effects. Even though students rolled their eyes and said, “Yah, yah, I gotta give dignity, miss, whatever,” they did.

They learned to use uplifting language, kind words, and compassion. They saw they could offer respect and a second chance to an offending neighbor, and in so doing they came to believe they were worthy of respect and dignity themselves.

The majority of them went on to attend colleges and universities. Some of the kids I taught became social workers, computer scientists, engineers, and yes, teachers.

I no longer teach at that school, but in the years since, I’ve thought a lot about this idea of giving dignity. I’ve come to see it as a kind of recognition of the inherent worth of the occupants of the desks in front of me and of my colleagues down the hall.

To be honest, though, most days, I’m pretty terrible at it.

I no longer work in a school system that elevates humanity, so, frankly, I forget to.

It’s become easy for me to prioritize looming tests over really listening to my students. The pressures of my calendar constantly win over compassion. I miss linking arms with colleagues who emphatically insisted on giving dignity as emphatically as they insisted on anything else.

Seeing my students and my fellow teachers as a blurry sea of tasks has robbed me of the joy of my work. Worse, so much worse, is that this kind of thinking dehumanizes, well … humans.

And isn’t it precisely the dehumanizing of each other that has landed us in this unprecedentedly polarizing time?

I want to suggest that the necessity of giving dignity has never been more urgent. I also want to suggest there is no better place to begin practicing and teaching dignity than in our schools.

Giving dignity to our colleagues

I believe before we can encourage our students to show dignity to one another, we teachers have to be willing to do same. This looks like listening more than speaking, asking questions instead of jumping to judgment.

I was recently in a meeting with my fellow coaches, plus a couple of other folks on our team. We were on a very cordial, education-focused footing until someone used a phrase that included the word patriotism. Someone else hotly responded with a phrase that included the word oppression.

In less than 60 seconds, we’d flown from collegiality to red-faced anger.

While it is so tempting to take sides and engage in whispered, “Can you believe …” conversations, this disregards the worth of people.

What if, instead, we listened and asked questions? How might that meeting have gone differently if someone had said, “I can see you feel strongly about this. Tell me more.”

To be honest, I agreed with one of my co-workers in that quick exchange … and disagreed with the other. I would have loved to jump on the eye-rolling bandwagon.

But because I know the person whose politics annoy me, it was a lot harder for me to dismiss him. I know about his exceptionally traumatic childhood and his beloved veteran grandfather. I know how much he cares about our students and works hard to help them. We have a relationship based on respect, so reducing him to a political stance was impossible.

I do not mean to suggest we should ever acquiesce to belief systems that in and of themselves are dehumanizing. But we will never move towards understanding on the big issues if we constantly shut down and shut out during every disagreement.

So let’s listen. Let’s ask questions. Let’s avoid gossip. Let’s seek to create a workplace that celebrates the goodness of all of us by attempting to give dignity wherever we find the chance.

How to humanize your classroom so kids are known, valued, respected, & safe

Giving dignity to students

In the same way it can feel nearly impossible to find harmony in our adult work relationships, the same is true with our students. Perhaps even more so when the student population is challenging.

One of the schools I support takes place inside a residential detention center. The youths there have been sentenced to serve time for crimes they were convicted of. Most are not contrite and ready to be rehabilitated. Nope. They are angry and hurt.

Have you heard the phrase that hurt people hurt people? I can confirm it’s true (and I bet you can, too). It’s extremely difficult to respond to their coarse and bitter words with kindness and compassion. But it’s possible … and worth it.

Here are a few suggestions to help you think about ways to give dignity in your classroom.

  • Teach to students’ interests. This can feel like a herculean task in this age where teachers have less and less input on content. Yet nothing says “I see you” more than giving students content that piques their curiosity and speaks to their interests. Let make it relevant become the backbone of your lesson planning. At that detention center I mentioned, some of the most angry, volitive young men began treating me like a much-beloved aunt because I brought them books I thought they’d like. It was just that simple.
  • Differentiate the heck out of your lessons. You have students sitting in the desks in your classroom who are academically lost. Erect every ladder you can find to help them climb up to their grade level. (There are outstanding resources for easy differentiation right here at Truth for Teachers.) Offer your kids dignity by refusing to let them fall even further behind while on your watch.
  • Attend professional development related to childhood trauma. You’ll pick up loads of ideas, not to mention a generous amount of understanding that will help you see difficult students in a whole new light. Google “trauma-informed teaching” for an avalanche of information and strategies.
  • Read your students’ IEPs and student files. Call home. In other words, seek to understand who they are and where they’ve come from. All of this will transform your thinking about your students, so you can see them as people rather than problems.

An example: a few months ago, as part of a research project, I reached out to the parents of a young man who had already graduated to talk to them about their experiences in our school system. By the end of our interview, I was stunned.

This mom told me about her son’s early childhood, the years when he didn’t speak or make eye contact, the physical harm he’d caused himself. I’d known none of that when I taught her child. I was ashamed. More importantly, I was convicted.

Recognize the dignity in your students by listening to their caregivers and reading their files. This may sound like a ton of work, but it doesn’t have to be. Once a month, skip grading one whole assignment. Use the time you would have been grading to make a phone call home or to do a little background reading about one of your students.

(By the way, you can file that ungraded assignment as student work samples. You’ll be glad you did when you are invited to a parent-teacher conference and need anecdotal evidence.)

The ultimate guide to authentically creating a secondary classroom where students feel safe, welcome, & whole

Helping students give dignity to one another

Once you are working towards practicing dignity with your colleagues and your students, you are ready to give your students tools to practice dignity with each other.

My number one suggestion? Encourage do-overs.

Here’s what that looks like:

Amanda: Jeez, Jonathan, do you seriously have to keep tapping your pencil like that? You’re driving me insane. Gah, you’re so annoying.

Teacher: (quietly to Amanda) Hey, let’s try that again. How could you more kindly make your request?

Over and over, ask your students to try again. When they’re stumped (and they will be), equip them with sentence starters and replacement phrases.

Together, create “Say this instead of that” word lists. Create scenarios that convey the opposite of dignity, and then have students act them out with kinder revisions.

In other words: practice, practice, and practice some more. As your students get better at using value-giving words in little ways, you can move on to more potentially inflammatory topics.

Will your older kids roll their eyes? Yep.

But I promise you, they will eventually get it. And by eventually, I don’t necessarily mean in your classroom. But someday they will. Someday they will see their own worth and so, the worth of the people around them.

Classroom meetings: Your most powerful tool for creating a respectful, inclusive class culture

Giving dignity to ourselves

One last thing …

Refuse to participate in systems that lack dignity.

Some of you are teaching in environments that do not give you dignity. In whatever way is right for you, say no. You cannot possibly give compassion and kindness to the folks around you if you are not experiencing those things yourself.

In her book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us, Cole Arthur Riley says, “To be human in an aching world is to know our dignity and become people who safeguard the dignity of everything around us.”

Let’s engender dignity in our schools and in our classrooms. Let’s give it in heaps to our students and our colleagues. Let’s insist on dignity for ourselves.

Melissa Forbes

Instructional coach, MTSS coordinator

Melissa Forbes is an instructional coach, MTSS coordinator, and writer. She’s taught English, journalism, and work experience, as well as coordinated high school dual enrollment and school-to-work programs. Melissa writes about her experiences both in and out of the classroom...
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