When Zen, my newest equine companion, came into my life, he was two years and four months old. He had not yet figured out how to behave around humans in an acceptable and safe way. He had spent most of his life with two other geldings who were very athletic and very good at keeping the youngster in his place in their herd. He viewed humans as a transitory herd, another group of horses who obviously did not realize they were below him in the pecking order. He would behave just fine unless he was asked to do something he did not like. He kicked when I asked him to move away from pressure. When that didn’t work, he would swing his hind end to try to pin me to the wall or fence he was tied to. When I touched him or groomed him in a way he didn’t like, he would turn and bite, one time taking my whole arm in his mouth and leaving one devil of a bruise. He would rear and strike, even charging me on the lead when I disciplined him for pulling or encroaching on my “personal space.”

Zen had not yet learned respect for me. He treated me like an unruly horse below my station in the herd. I began carrying a whip and used it to tap and make clear where his body needed to be. There would be an occasional rap to make clear a kick or strike was not tolerable. I taught him to back on command, to follow me when I lead, and to trot when I ran. I took him to the round pen and drove him away when he charged me. There was plenty of positive reinforcement–a rub on the forehead (he REALLY likes that!), a scratch on the crest of his neck, or a firm pat on the shoulder or neck. He never got treats by hand because of the biting, but at the end of a good session, he got hand grazing on fresh grass, and a handful of treats in his feed bucket. I no longer see much of his previous behavior. He looks for me when I come out, comes to the fence to wait for me to slip his halter on, and is mostly quite happy to accept new things I may introduce. We have a much better relationship.  He now respects me.

When I start a school year, I want to set expectations in my classroom early. I find that with some classes I am quite successful, but with others, I have trouble making myself clear. I have the standard rules that all classrooms have, mostly the student code of conduct, as stated by the school, but I have my own, “most important” rules. I explain them, and we as a class discuss what each rule means. I focus on one in particular.

I want students to work during work times. I want them to listen when another person is talking (me or another student). I want my students to be polite to everyone in the classroom. I want them to perform laboratories safely and effectively so they can glean all the value they can from them. I believe students should be kind to one another, for I believe that no one should feel unsafe in a classroom for any reason. Students should be helpful to each other, so that each may learn and succeed. My problem is that my rule is apparently vague to some students. Others find it hard to apply to themselves, while they do not hesitate to apply my rule to all others in the classroom, including me. Perhaps what I need is to define my rules more clearly, but my tendency toward simplicity makes it hard not to write more rules that only state the same thing.
My favorite rule is this: You will show respect to yourself, fellow students and your teacher. When I was a high school student, I was probably more mature than the students I teach now. I could not understand then, and still do not understand the behavior I see in the hallways and in the classrooms. When students think its funny to hurt one another, whether physically or emotionally, I am truly at a loss. I have been accused of lacking a sense of humor on more than one occasion because I have never really found it amusing when someone has been injured. There is a lack of empathy among some students that I fail to grasp. It seems no one realizes that they actually affect the lives of the other people around them.

I discuss this rule with my students. I do not just put it out there and hope they “get” it. I ask them what they think respect is, and I usually get pretty standard answers like “treat others the way you want to be treated”. While this is an acceptable answer to me, they do not seem to recognize when they fail to apply it, even when I bring it to their attention. Their response seems to be that I am now disrespecting them because I am not allowing them to “kid around”.  When I explain that showing respect to themselves means putting effort forward so they can succeed, I “need to chill”. They do not see failure is even a option until it is nearly happening, and in some cases, it is past and irreparable.

The strange thing, perhaps not so surprising, is that most seem to  understand how to respect me, in the most basic ways, at least. Yes, occasionally I must remind them to listen when I am speaking, or ask them to “lose the earbuds”. I must call parents for tardies. These are minor occurrences, and oddly, corrections are not met with excuses or rebuke, rather, students will most commonly say “yes, Ma’am” and comply with little argument. Of course there are exceptions, but they are few.

Some might say that my expectations are too high here. These children are fourteen and fifteen year olds, and they are still learning how to behave. It is expected that they will act out, misbehave and test boundaries. My concern with this dismissive attitude is that it allows and makes excuses for the behavior. If these students are not taught civil behavior when they are teenagers, then when, exactly, will they be expected to learn them? There is a constant culture of children who behave as if there is no one else in the world that might care what is going on around them. While I am more than aware that students are not mature, and many of the behaviors that concern me stem adirectly from that lack of development, it seems to me that I have seen an increase in this lack of respect for others. The lack of empathy, the inability to see that their actions impact other people, is very disturbing to me. I expected to teach much more than my subject to my students, but I wonder what other influences teach these students in matters of simple civility. Some do not see the point in following the most basic of rules (like being in class on time), and do not grasp that it inconveniences others (interrupts class, distracts students). They think nothing of making fun of another student’s questions in class, but get angry if it comes back to them. They will yell at someone to be quiet, but keep talking when that person has the floor. These are the ways my generation learned in class… others found such behaviors irritating and annoying, and made it known. So people learned not to be irritating and annoying. What I see is that these students do not change their behavior. They just keep on operating as if nothing was said to them.

When I speak to parents, I am confused. Most are very supportive, I think they understand we share the same goal, to help their child learn and achieve the best he or she can. Parents want their children to learn, but they also want to protect them from all the bad things out there, and in order to do that, they end up missing valuable learning opportunities. For some of these parents, there is always an excuse for acting out, or failure to comply, or rudeness or irritability. For some of these parents, it is hard to be the adult. I have watched children boss parents around like they tried to boss me around, and I suddenly understand why that behavior is there. It has been cultivated, and I can’t understand what these parents think will happen to this child when he grows up and tries to make it in a job or in a college class room.

Years ago, when I worked in retail, I recall a similar teenager applied for and got a job in the store I worked in. He was bossy to everyone. He was late every day for three days. When the manager confronted him, he got insolent and was fired on the spot, even though we were already short handed for the season. His mother called the manager trying to patch things up, but the manager hung up on her. I wonder if either learned anything from that experience. The lack of civility between people will take a toll on us all eventually. Either we will finally manage to teach the new generation how to behave, or we will live in a much less joyful, more stressful world.