Creating a Culture of Respect
If there’s one lesson above all the others that we want our students at Red Cedar to carry with them into life, without question it’s their sense of their own worth together with their perception of their place in the world. It’s all about dignity. Individuals who believe in themselves, who believe in their capacity for learning, for competence, for independence, for goodness and for compassion, are almost always intelligent, capable, engaged and decent people. How does dignity develop? How is it nurtured in school?
At Red Cedar, we focus on developing a culture of respect. We believe that a community with a culture of respect is critical for bringing out the best in each person. And we believe that a culture of respect starts with the relationship between teachers and students. We begin with the premise that it is an essential right of students to be treated with the same respect that we want for ourselves as teachers. Those of us who work at Red Cedar are unanimous in our desire to be part of a workplace where we are known well, appreciated, needed as part of a community, challenged to grow, given a degree of freedom in the decisions we make, and where we have a good time. We believe our students need the same kind of environment in order to thrive. We treat them in the way we want to be treated.
We start by getting to know each of our students well. Learning is very personal at Red Cedar. We get to know the particular characteristics, quirks, strengths, weaknesses, interests, ideas and aspirations of each and every student. This allows us to relate to students very individually. We can care about students in very specific ways. It figures hugely into the work we do with them. And it allows us to recognize when they need support and guidance in their social and emotional development.
A critical part of our relationship with students is our appreciation of them. One of the very basic requirements for working at Red Cedar is a genuine enjoyment of young people. Knowledge of subject matter, prior experience, professional development and general maturity are important, but we would not consider hiring anyone who didn’t relish spending their days with kids. We all know how it feels not to be liked by someone with whom we are closely tied – an employer, a fellow worker, a community member. We know the effect this can have on us. Young people need adults who believe in them, who celebrate their efforts, who enjoy them. Students will also work hard for teachers they know care about them. Students will come to them with their problems and they will share their vulnerabilities with them.
Central to the culture of our school is a valuing of all kinds of individuals. We don’t have dominant groups, such as quick, high performing students or athletes, who are given more acknowledgement or preference. There is no educational class-ism and nobody is marginalized because they are different. We assume that all students are intelligent and talented, each in their own way. Our job is to help bring it out, to help direct it, and to value it. We avoid grades, rankings and competition as means of motivation for this reason. We emphasize learning for learning’s sake, and students appreciate this. They want to become better readers, writers, thinkers, become more knowledgeable people. We listen carefully to students and observe them closely to figure out their style of learning. We try to honor all ways of being and to support the development of many interests. We celebrate the learning and growth of all students, constantly. We make sure that everyone gets his or her fair share of acknowledgement.
We find that our faith in our students affects their belief in themselves. We don’t contrive to believe in them: we just look openly and observantly at what’s there. Inevitably each individual is brimming with many specific wonderful qualities and potentials. We see it, and appreciate it, and for students who don’t see it in themselves, our view of them becomes a mirror. In time they see what we are able to see.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t challenge our students, or say the hard things that need to be said, or hold them accountable for their actions. We do, but in a way that honors their dignity. We also believe strongly in mutual respect. Not surprisingly, students who are treated with respect usually reciprocate that respect naturally.
But more than reciprocate courtesy and decency, we want our students to value our role in their lives and allow us to guide them. For this to happen, students must trust that we value their worth and honor their continual aspiration toward independence (what enables them to develop into adults). This gets at the heart of dignity.
Dignity for human beings centers on personal agency: the ability to act, create, choose, will. It matters if I am treated well: if I am known, loved, trusted. But it is just as important that I am able to think, imagine, know, do. A person with dignity has a voice, gives input, affects others, makes choices, creates new things.
When students are only taught, directed and helped, they are only recipients. There is not a lot of dignity in this condition; there is not much dignity in being controlled all the time. It breeds dependency and passivity; it breeds resentment. And we are denying students what should be at the heart of their education: learning to take initiative.
To honor the full dignity of students, we must enable them to actively engage in their education. Our relationship with them must be that of a partnership in which they are equally invested and involved in their learning. It’s their lives.