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Dignity and Respect in the Classroom

Dear Diane,

I'll be in Chicago when you get this letter. But I'm writing it a week before—while news from Egypt is still up in the air, but democracy seems a less likely outcome every day.** But those who were involved had an experience, I suspect, that has forever changed them. If they survived, they have a sense of dignity, of having stood up to a bully and spoken their minds.

Somewhere recently I read an article which claimed that a study done across national borders showed that people, when offered liberty, freedom, and dignity as choices, picked dignity as the thing they wanted most. I thought that was interesting. Being treated with dignity is, I suspect, part of our natural aspiration as humans. And while it can be crushed, it can also be restored. My experience in schools that placed faculty, family, and student dignity above all else was reassuring. Students came to us without expecting that this was ever likely to be found in schools; families who had similar experiences at being disregarded, patronized, talked down to, and shut out of their children's school lives responded when schools changed, too. Not immediately, but over time.

The same is true for the adults who work in a school—from custodians to secretaries to paraprofessionals and teachers. And principals.

I came into teaching in the early 1960s as a substitute teacher in South Side Chicago's K-8 schools. Then I became a kindergarten teacher—a position I held for many years. From the very moment I began the journey I was struck by the ways in which I was disrespected, as though that was the norm.

Getting my license was conducted with a disrespect I had literally never before experienced. Some said: "It's as though they think we are 5-year-olds." But I hadn't been so badly treated even as a 5-year-old. Sometimes I got the feeling that "they" were trying to weed out those who found the process too offensive—that this was a screening device of sorts. But I doubt it. I've written about this many times because it came as such a shock. It included everything from the language used to the tone of voice. In 1962—at the age of 31—I expected strangers to call me Mrs. Meier, but the voice that announced the school where I was to sub always referred to me as Debby! Not even Deborah.

I witnessed the way teachers were treated in many schools and realized soon that I could not remain in the field if I was faced with this day after day and if my future depended on responding "appropriately" to such rudeness. I was mostly lucky at finding principals who treated me differently, perhaps because of my age and background, because some were quite typical in the way they addressed my colleagues. And parents. And, of course, students.

Nor did the outside world seem to take my decision to teach seriously. My friends and family were dismayed, viewing the teaching of the young as something to which women once aspired because there was nothing better in sight. But, as the dean of education at Temple University said to me: "Why do we bother to educate people like you if you're going to end up as kindergarten teachers?" When I got a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987, reporters said the same thing: "Now that you have this award, what will you go on to do in the future?" "Teach," I replied, "of course." But they found that inconceivable.

It may have been slightly more acceptable to teach older children, especially a real academic discipline in high school. (Although they, too, were assumed to be chosen from those who couldn't get a job on a postsecondary level. A high school history teacher wasn't assumed to belong to the academic world of historians, for example, even though many had the same credentials as their college colleagues.)

It was only with the coming of unions—rather late in the game—that being a teacher didn't suggest that one was, more or less, a glorified babysitter, governess, etc. It hadn't been long since teachers were expected to behave themselves according to 19th Century norms before, during, and after school hours. Married women couldn't teach in St. Louis until about the time I began teaching. Pregnant women were required to quit when their pregnancy "showed." Insubordination was the No. 1 sin a teacher could commit, even with unions to back him (usually her) up.

We hid in our classrooms, kept an eye out for the principal when escorting children to the bathroom, and never asked for help for fear it would look like you were incompetent.

I cared a lot about kids. Yes, yes, "children first." But I believed then as now that young people should not be surrounded by fearful, timid, obedient adults. They needed to witness adulthood as something worthy of aspiring to. They needed to be surrounded by adults who enjoyed adult company, who took social and intellectual pleasure amongst adults, and who engaged in the kind of adult conversation—dialogue—at which they, too, were working to become expert.

I cringed when my colleagues spoke about the principal as though she were a mother figure, trying to assess her every mood—when best to ask a favor, when best to hide. I wished we'd not become such experts at the polite lie, the polite smile when treated as we did not deserve, and all the other habits teachers in K-6 schools had developed to protect themselves. Children admire power. I do, too. To have to disguise that was dismaying and explained perhaps why "control" becomes such a holy grail within the classroom—the only place where many teachers could act grown-up!

It's this culture that I was determined to change; and when I became a director or school principal, whether K-5 or 7-12, I was determined to create a school which treated everyone as I would want to be treated. I think we came close to doing so at Central Park East I, at the Central Park East Secondary School, and at Mission Hill in Boston. But it's getting harder, not easier, to do so these days.

Enough for now. No, "children first" is not what I want to see happen—but rather a setting in which everyone's self-respect comes first.

Deborah

** EDITOR's NOTE: Events in Egypt changed dramatically after Deborah Meier submitted this piece.

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