Educators cannot be bystanders to disrespect

Elida Brereton By Elida Brereton

In my 43 years in the education system, including over 17 years as a school principal, I’ve had the wonderful experience of watching young people grow, and have come to believe that teachers can make a positive difference in their students’ worlds. In this role, you spend a lot of time with your students and you’re invested in not only their learning, but also their social and emotional development. It gives me joy to see young people who’ve turned their lives around as a result of their teachers’ care and encouragement.

Alongside these experiences, you’re also responsible for guiding students, and recognising and challenging disrespectful behaviours on school grounds and in classrooms. I’ve heard almost every excuse under the sun for disrespect. From ‘boys will be boys’ to ‘we were just joking’ and even ‘he/she’s too sensitive – we were just having a bit of fun’.

What I’ve noticed, and particularly since hearing about the Stop it at the Start campaign, is the tendency for some teachers to play down or accept certain behaviour as part and parcel of kids growing up. I admit there are occasions where it’s hard to know where to draw the line. You may even question whether it’s your place to intervene, or if it should be a matter for their parents.

Yet looking at the research informing the campaign, outside of the home, teachers have the strongest influence on what young people think and how they behave. This reinforces to me that we cannot be bystanders when we see disrespect at school.

Many educators choose their profession because they want to help young people and provide them with important academic skills. For some, this transcends learning and education, and becomes about giving young people the life skills and tools to navigate relationships with their peers. It can be tricky to have conversations about why insulting someone for just being a boy or a girl is wrong, or handling other disrespectful situations, but the conversation will always be worth it. We have the opportunity, and may I say responsibility, to curb unacceptable behaviours from a young age. We should harness our influence as teachers to instil positive attitudes and behaviours among our students.

Like parents for their children, teachers want their students to thrive and become respectful adults. I’m always delighted to see former students and hear about their journeys and experiences since leaving my classroom, as well as how their life was changed by school. One of my students, who is now extremely successful, even apologised for giving his teachers ‘hell’. I feel a sense of hope and gratitude knowing I’ve potentially had a positive influence on their lives somewhere along the way.

All of this is important to me because I think we have a much better understanding of where disrespectful behaviours and the cycle of violence against women can start. We cannot afford to ignore disrespect at any time.

I encourage all teachers to recognise, and not excuse, any form of disrespect they might hear or see. Each of us has a role to play and sometimes it’s just the simple act of stopping, reflecting and questioning that can be enough to make a powerful change.

Handy resources

  • Watch this short video from Elida about stopping ‘easy excuses.’
  • Use the excuse interpreter to discover the hidden meanings of common expressions that can excuse disrespectful behaviour towards girls.
  • Use the conversation guide to help you talk more confidently and openly with young people about the importance of respectful relationships.