Respecting Students

George Fogarasi

By George Fogarasi, Fleming College

Friends Don’t Grade Friends

Respect. Could anything be more self-evident? Fist bumps in the gym. Aretha Franklin. Kant’s Categorical Imperative (a fancy-pants term for Do Unto Others). Like a judge famously said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” But do we? Respect, a no-brainer in daily life, is more complex in a classroom.

Do Unto Others implies parity. We’re the same, commuting or buying donuts, impatient in the express aisle. Do Unto Others seems easy. Switch it up: do I want some clown with thirty sacks of kibble ahead of me? But in classrooms, you are a teacher. You don’t grade cashiers. Or the guy behind you, who stood in the same line last term, is desperate to graduate and thinks you’re in the way. A classroom’s not a supermarket meeting of equals: there is always a power relationship. We can be friendly, but not friends. After all, friends don’t grade friends.

Students always know teachers have power. Teachers can forget this. Compassion and civility (R-E-S-P-E-C-T) are not eclipsed by asymmetrical power relations, but instructors represent institutional policies and expectations. Respect means acknowledging the power imbalance in a classroom and using authority consciously and compassionately.

Just Like Me (Not)

Respect is culturally determined. It’s easy to universalize shared cultural values (we’re-human-after-all), but Do Unto Others means cultural rules apply everywhere at all times. This cultural construct is not universal. Confucian cultures follow a situational ethic. Rules are determined by context and relationship, and the classroom context has specific expectations.

I received identical emails from two international students: “Respected Sir, grant me my mistake.” I was stumped. How do I grant a mistake? It’s a mystery. The honorific “Respected Sir” threw me (like it throws some students when we ask them to use our first name).

You’d never know Jack Layton and the guitarist for Queen earned PhD’s. In other cultures, they would always be Dr. Layton / Dr. May (Dr. Mayton if they formed a social democratic Supergroup). We must seem pretty chill—or rude—to some international students. First names? That’s for servants!


Respect means acknowledging how disconcerting it can be to navigate new norms. Respect means bridging students to our sometimes discomforting culture without devaluing their culture. Explicitly noting we’re not better, only different is important. But if teachers and institutions unconsciously project that our way is better… that’s not very respectful. Like Bigfoot and white privilege, this is hard to see.

A Tiny Righteous Lie

We build bridges or barriers across cultures but also within our culture. For a First Generation immigrant’s kid, swapping South Oshawa for post-secondary school can be a bigger shock than living abroad (trust me, I have epistemological privilege here—and it’s even weirder to go back once you’ve learned upmarket words like “epistemological privilege”). Class can be hard to see.

It’s important to respect students’ backgrounds when presenting daunting challenges in a new milieu that can belittle students’ previous experiences. This is true for foreign and marginalized Canadian students. Skills professors with advanced degrees deem as given are cultural constructs many students have never encountered. Academic customs echo their narrow gendered, racial and class-based pedigree. Respect demands the difficult task of introducing academic expectations without devaluing other ways of knowing.

We easily universalize our experiences. It’s hard, to notice let alone understand, different worldviews. Yet we must if we are to connect students to the academic and vocational norms of the dominant culture. It’s important to emphasize the new expectations are not better. They’re merely different.

It can take some improvisation to get this point across. Decades ago, I reported an international student for the verbatim lifting of an entire article presented as original work. Plagiarism! The student’s culture greatly valued saving face. He put his hand on his heart and implored “I swear these are my words. Is coincidence.” I held his gaze and solemnly said “I believe you. But this is my job. The words are the same. I am judging them, not you. Of course I believe you.” Okay, I lied. But we parted smiling. He had a patina of dignity left, saving face by not being called a liar by his teacher.

Anthropologists would note that I represented a culture of law (you plagiarized) while he was rooted in a culture of honour where relationships are paramount and humiliation is debilitating (closer to home than you might imagine). My step sideways with the truth—“I believe you”—was sensitive to his honour. Given this respect, he was able to accept the judgement.

Strategic I’m-Like-You

Revealing vulnerability or ignorance can be a powerful show of respect. I am like you, confused. There’s a difference between unconsciously assuming a false parity and consciously / strategically invoking equity.

I was about to start the first class of term when a student called something “retarded.” I took a deep breath: “I come from the same culture you do. I have learned the same things, have the same words in my head. I’m not better than you. However…” I began and asked what the consequences were of such language. Students took it from there.

Parsing discriminatory language from this systemic perspective gave the student face. It made all of us equally responsible for how we use the cultural cards we’re dealt. A top down “THAT’S WRONG!” would make the student defensive and reduce the exchange to a teacher-good / student-bad binary. Not much respect or learning there.

We can show respect by sharing commonalities (I learned those words too), wielding authority (no, that’s not on), and by letting students wield their authority (dude, what were you thinking saying that?).

Andragogy 101

Everyone in your class has paid to be a student, to learn. They are adults (really!) who bring skills with them and learn in different ways. Respect this: meet learners where they are. This changes; yesterday’s non-traditional student is today’s norm.

Ryerson’s Engaging Adult Learners explores the tenants of adult education:

Adult learning is selective. Students seek meaningful learning and are averse to learning what they consider irrelevant. Respect =  keep it real.

Adult learning is self-directed. Students identify needs, set goals and choose how to learn. Respect = honour their choices and provide alternatives when necessary. It sounds hopelessly earnest: students-choose-how-to-learn? Some wait silently to be told what to do. Maybe they have been conditioned by schools that devalued their learning goals and styles.

Adult learners bring valuable knowledge with them. They have accomplished things and overcome barriers (even if they can’t see this). They have practical ways of being (and learning) in the world and prefer problem-centered approaches.

Respect is a systemic issue: do curricula honour student experience, or do we merely “do school,” reproducing academic abstractions informing our success? Respect honours the strengths and expectations of adult students. Respect addresses the (often hidden) diversity our classrooms. By definition, we can’t understand this spectrum. It’s difficult and scary to surrender the security of certainty. Teachers are trained (and like) to know. Admitting blind spots, saying “I don’t know,” is a radical act of respect allowing teachers to join students in a vulnerable activity: becoming producers, not merely consumers, of knowledge.

About The Author

George Fogarasi has taught in a kindergarten, elementary school, adult high school, colleges and a university: he has spent decades doing his best to respect a spectrum of students in very different contexts. Whether teasing out the intricacies of transnational identity or demystifying the apostrophe, he strives to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar in an accessible and entertaining manner. After school, he enjoys escaping electricity with a canoe on his head.

Featured image: “bigfeet” flickr photo by veritatem https://flickr.com/photos/veritatem/24378073 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

and “Bigfoot?” flickr photo by Ben Cumming https://flickr.com/photos/givingkittensaway/49581454 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license


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The Open Faculty Patchbook Copyright © 2017 by George Fogarasi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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