Faculty Focus


Teaching and Learning ‘Respect’ and ‘Acceptance’ in the Classroom

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou

In today’s classroom, some students are very expressive and outspoken. In some cases, they’re respectful and informative; in other cases, offensive or disparaging. When I apply the Maya Angelou quote to student perceptions, I consider that every interaction, discussion, debate, and collaboration has the potential to impact how someone in the class feels. Each person brings to the class his or her own beliefs, experiences, and ways of behaving and interacting. Diversity in the classrooms could include differences in:

  • race;
  • ethnicity;
  • cultural norms;
  • experience;
  • age;
  • language, dialect;
  • socioeconomic status;
  • family dynamics;
  • educational/career aspirations, backgrounds;
  • religious, political affiliations;
  • sexual orientation;
  • gender;
  • physical appearance, attire; and
  • physical abilities.

It is important that I reflect on and monitor my own behavior and how I might best model respect and acceptance of others in the classroom. It is also important that students learn how to monitor their actions and words.

Build rapport

Develop rapport with students and use positive communication to help them connect and understand the ideas of others. In an article titled “Creating Positive Emotional Contexts for Enhancing Teaching and Learning,” William Buskist and Bryan Saville found that developing rapport in the classroom involves a combination of behaviors consistently implemented. To name a few, some of the strategies that I have used are to address students by their names, learn background information about the students and use relevant examples they can relate to, acknowledge student comments and questions with praise, and be respectful.

Teaching involves much more than the dissemination of course content; it involves interaction. There is always a chance that some topic or comment might spark debate as people share information, personal differences, insights, beliefs, or unique experiences. To encourage awareness and respect of others’ viewpoints in the class, I incorporate strategies that I refer to as D.E.E.P. I establish communication expectations and a learning environment that enable students to feel included and valued.

Think D.E.E.P.

1. Developing appropriate language use in the classroom means establishing clear communication expectations and modeling the standards I expect to observe between students.

Inform students that the class is a “judge-free zone” by avoiding statements that appear to judge or offend others such as “that’s dumb,” “you’re crazy,” or “you’re stupid if you believe…”

Instruct students to refer to others by name, not by labels or physical characteristics, by avoiding statements such as “that person,” “those people,” “the dude with the…” If educators have either a class size that is too large or a bad memory for names, have students take a sheet of paper and create their own name plate to sit on their desk.

Collaborate with students in the beginning of the semester to solicit feedback on a list of classroom communication “dos and don’ts” or words and phrases they find personally offensive. Individuals know themselves better than anyone when it comes to what will offend them or make them feel excluded.

Model good listening techniques by not interrupting the speaker, and demonstrate appropriate ways of responding. Statements that help are “what I heard you say was…,” “I interpret that to mean…,” “in my experiences…,” “I hear your point of view, and this is my experience/understanding…”

2. Encouraging open and honest dialogue allows students to experience both similarities and differences between one another.

Plan opportunities for students to share their viewpoints and experiences using “think-pair-share” moments sharing in pairs, small groups, or large groups. When students have the chance to think independently, then run their ideas and views by a small group of peers first, they may be more likely to dialogue. This is also a good way to help shy students feel more comfortable and have a voice in the classroom.

For sensitive or controversial topics, you can offer opportunities for in-class responses to whole-group questions to be made anonymously. For example, hand out index cards or ask students to tear a sheet of paper in half (they can share the other half with a nearby classmate), and write down their response to your question. Collect, shuffle, and read the anonymous responses to the class.

3. Empowering students to share without ridicule means acknowledging that there will be differences in the classroom and that individuals are unique in varying ways.

Intervene immediately when students violate respectful communication expectations. Be direct and reiterate institutional expectations, student code of conduct, course policies, and the student self-reports on what they perceive as offensive or disparaging.

4. Processing information shared by reconnecting it to course content means making sure student discussions, viewpoints, and ideas are both valued and summarized in the context of a learning outcome or course objective.

Acknowledge the value of student contributions, even when there is disagreement. Provide research-based information that supports or validates student opinions and refutes misconceptions. Challenge students to reflect on how their beliefs or experiences and the experience of others are relevant to key ideas, themes, or topics in the course. Redirect discussions that veer off topic.

Model respect

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to Hart Research Associates’ 2015 report detailing employer expectations of college graduates’ skills, 96% of the employers agreed that students from all fields of study “should have experiences in college that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own” (p. 4) and gain intercultural skills.

There are challenges in the classroom. I try to anticipate potential challenges to create a classroom culture that values diversity, and implement inclusive practices to build a community of learners that models respect and acceptance of differences.

Bottom line: Develop rapport and think D.E.E.P.

Kentina R. Smith is an assistant professor of psychology at Anne Arundel Community College.

References and suggested reading:
Buskist, W. & Saville, B. K. (2001). Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. Association for Psychological Science Observer, 14(3). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2001/march-01/rapport-building-creating-positive-emotional-contexts-for-enhancing-teaching-and-learning.html

Hart Research Associates (2015). Falling short? College learning and career success. Washington, D.C.

Metropolitan Center for Urban Education (2008). Culturally responsive classroom management strategies. New York University: New York, NY. Retrieved from http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/uploads/005/121/Culturally%20Responsive%20Classroom%20Mgmt%20Strat2.pdf

Rajagopal, K. (2011). Culturally responsive instruction. Create success! Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/111022/chapters/Culturally-Responsive-Instruction.aspx