The cry “I don’t get no respect!,” made famous by Rodney Dangerfield in the twentieth century, is regularly echoed by public and private figures alike. Teachers especially know you can have much better grammar than Dangerfield and still hurt for respect. Students talk back to you, parents side with their kids, administrators criticize your teaching and discipline. Other than changing careers, what’s to be done?
From presidents to parents, many people sabotage their own authority because they confuse commanding respect with demanding it. If you expect everyone to do exactly as you say, no questions asked, under constant threat of punishment—you won’t get respect, you’ll get grudging obedience, passive-aggressive contempt, and perhaps open rebellion.
Commanding respect means being a person of tangible competence, integrity, and (in most cases) basic likability. And it means holding values besides your personal pride. When you believe in your principles and defend your beliefs with quiet confidence rather than violent attack, you’ll be respected even by those who don’t agree with you.
Holding your integrity higher than your pride doesn’t mean lacking confidence in yourself: you want to project the attitude not only that you represent something higher than yourself, but that you are personally an effective representative. As any teacher assigned to a class with a rowdy reputation can testify, there are always people who will test your authority first thing and pounce on any sign of weakness—including secret fears that the situation will be too much for you. Pass that test, and you’ll establish your reputation as someone to be respected. Flunk, and you’ll struggle with lack of respect for the rest of the term.
If you have self-doubt problems, start a morning ritual of giving yourself a strong affirmation-based pep talk to keep your mind on your abilities and past successes. You can do it!
When you believe in yourself and your values, you don’t need to put others down to preserve your self-esteem. The leaders who get the most respect are those who show the most respect for their subordinates: noticing what’s done right and letting pass what’s not perfect; having empathy for others’ struggles; listening to (even inviting) opinions; acknowledging when one of your students has a better idea than the way you’ve always done things (follow up by actually putting that idea to use); and, yes, admitting it and apologizing when you’ve made a mistake. (Being fallible is human and forgivable; trying to maintain an illusion of infallibility will elicit only contempt.) This isn’t “letting students run the class”: giving everyone their fair say can only help ensure the class runs smoothly.
When you cultivate an atmosphere of “I’m the final authority but I trust you all with initiative,” it’ll also help ensure that the students in your class respect each other. Tolerate no bullying, however subtle. Defend the weak when necessary, but don’t make yourself their personal bodyguard: encourage them to believe in themselves. Make all-around respect one of your classroom’s primary values, and you’ll always be sure of getting your share.