Conditional Respect & the Struggle for Self Esteem

In 2003, after three years in a humanistic alternative public charter middle school, our daughter Emma decided to experience attending a large conventional public high school, with nearly 4000 students, for her ninth grade year. One day, early in the semester, one of the vice-principals was a “guest lecturer” for a couple hundred of the Ninth graders, including Emma, that were spending their PE period waiting because they had not yet been assigned to a specific physical education class. He welcomed them to the school and reminded them that their teachers deserved the students’ respect, but the students would have to earn their teachers’ respect. Emma was now duly welcomed and warned that she was now a participant in a large public institution for youth, where she would presumably have to behave and perform to gain the conditional respect of the adult staff of the school.

When her mom and I picked her up from school we eagerly asked her how things went and she told us about each of her classes and her teachers and then, with an ironic laugh, she related the vice-principal’s announcement. Sally and I gulped, but were not completely shocked or surprised. When we asked her how she felt about it, Emma said it felt disrespectful of her and the other students, but she had kind of expected it, based on all the TV shows (including “Doug”, “Daria” & “Degrassi” in particular) she had watched for some time that were set in and drew many of their storylines from the public high school experience.

Remembering my own experience with junior high (the middle school of my youth), I don’t think the adult staff ever explicitly said that speech about respect, but I understood it implicitly to be true. Like many of the other twelve and thirteen-year-olds attending their first year of junior high, I was a kid with a significant deficit of self-esteem, craving any experience or relationship that would garner me a bit of the esteem of others. In this new larger school, I would be exposed to seven teachers and seven classrooms in close quarters with hundreds of other youth my age, and we would all be struggling for the conditional respect and esteem that our teachers could dispense. I understood that I needed to be compliant in my behavior, listen to my teachers, turn in all my homework, and do well on my tests, to earn the respect of my teachers and the bits of self-esteem that that might bring me.

The irony was that most of us students were in the same boat when it came to our deficit of self-esteem, but the issue was never discussed, either officially in the classroom in a circle discussion, or unofficially in the halls or the lunch room. So like most kids with low self-esteem, we all assumed that our peers did not were much better off than we were, and of course much smarter, better looking, more socially adept, etc. Lacking that needed and affirming discussion of our shared plight, one of the main coping strategies to try and build ones own esteem was to tear down others, pointing out our peers that were uglier, less smart and less socially adept than we were.

Twenty four years later in Emma’s high school, though the incoming ninth-graders were mostly fifteen instead of thirteen, I think a similar dynamic regarding self-esteem existed. Lacking proactive efforts to have the students share their common feelings of fear and unworthiness in safe discussions facilitated by caring adults (or even older youth), the school reacted to the typical negative behavior of tearing down others by trying to regiment and control school time as much as possible to try to minimize the teasing, bullying and other negative behaviors. Teachers worked hard to keep students lazar-focused on academic instruction in the classrooms (needing as well to deliver the material covered in the extensive content standards that would be tested in the high-stakes standardized tests), and then the school routine was set up to minimize the time available between classes for students to get into trouble interacting with each other outside the supervision of the adult staff.

This is a perfect example of where a more democratically run, or at least humanistically run, school would be a great benefit to the youth attending. Imagine the kids being broken up into small “homerooms” or “touch groups”, that would meet say once a week for an hour to discuss and share issues and coping strategies in a “safe” environment. To create that safe environment, maybe each touch group could be led by an older fellow student, trained in facilitation skills, rather than one of the teachers or other adult staff that might be more likely to be viewed by the students as someone that they had to impress and therefore could not be candid around.

Shouldn’t every person in a public institution, youth or adult, be automatically treated with respect? Shouldn’t all the public institutions in a democratic society respect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, whether that individual is an adult staff member or a student youth?

When you have such a huge institution to run, for example a school with almost 4000 kids, and many of those kids have difficult family issues or are not comfortable in this school environment, I can see how it can be tempting to dole out respect and esteem as a reward for behavior modification. Some kids, like me when I was a kid, so lacking and craving self-esteem, will do just about anything for the esteem of adults, and be in all things obedient and compliant. But I hated every day I spent in junior high school, complying and hunkering down as best I could, and had nowhere the developmental experience I could have had in a more humanistically run institution.

I don’t think it would have taken that much to add the dimension of unconditional respect to my junior high school or my daughter’s high school. Acknowledging that self-esteem was a hot-button issue for most students, and thoughtfully creating opportunities for students to share their concerns in a safe environment away from constant judgment would have gone a long way to make both of these institutions a much more positive experience for the students. Too many of our youth have become accustomed to being put in situations where they are accorded far to little respect.

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