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The Great "Respect" Deception

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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I have visited and trained in schools in every state in America, and at most of these sites, I've had a conversation with teachers and administrators similar to the one below:

Me: How many rules do you have?
Answer: (proudly) I only have one rule. It's respect for everyone.
Me: Do you allow hitting?
Answer: No.
Me: Do you allow swearing at the teacher?
Answer: No.
Me: Do you allow cell phones in class?
Answer: No.
Me: Again, how many rules do you have?
Answer: (laughing) One, I think.

I ask about five more questions regarding various behaviors and discover that wearing provocative clothing, selling drugs, bringing weapons to school, coming late to class and running in the halls are also not allowed. I ask again, "How many rules do you have?" The answer is still: "One."

Something strange is going on here.

Deception Clumps

Because so many educators have come to believe the myth of "the fewer rules, the better" (which I was taught in my teacher training program), they have developed what I call deception clumps. They throw as many rules as possible into a respectably titled non-communicative clump:

  • Be respectful.
  • Try your best.
  • Do unto others.
  • Be nice.

These all sound like positive, valuable things that are worth teaching to students, but because they are not behaviors, they cannot be enforced.

I define a rule as what you enforce every time it's broken. Platitudes cannot be enforced because there is no line to cross, there's nothing predictable for students to understand, and they're too vague to be useful. In essence, these clumps allow teachers to enforce anything whenever they want under any conditions they chose. It's a get into jail free card. Rules aren't reduced by clumping them -- they are only hidden from students. Often, the only way students can find the real lines is by crossing them. This encourages rule breaking rather than stopping it.

Back to my earlier discussions about respect: I ask these educators to imagine being arrested for being disrespectful. None can. But in America we have a dark history of just that -- arresting and even killing people for not being respectful. It's what racists did to minorities during the Jim Crow era. Minorities were harassed, jailed and even murdered when folks broke no laws. The Emmett Till case is just one example of how non-behavioral generalities give license to make up laws as you go along. Currently, one of the biggest controversies in many cities is the "stop and frisk" procedure, because it allows police action when no clear violation has occurred. Once again, the recipients of this technique are mostly minorities.

I doubt that most schools use respect as a way to show cultural bias, but with "respect" type rules, the opportunity for confusion exists for both the teachers and students.

Values vs. Rules

Many teachers and administrators tell me that they define their "respect rule" with lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. This is a step in the right direction -- as long as other behaviors not on the list are not enforced. The better system is to use these clumps in a more positive way. Instead of eliminating them, we can elevate them to be more important than rules. We can use them to define the values of the school, list under each value the behaviors that are unacceptable, and convert our responses to those behaviors into our rules. Instead of choosing values or rules, we can use both interdependently. Of course, the rules need to be directly related to their values. Airlines do this to perfection. We can use their example.

When you board an airplane, the first thing the flight attendant says is, "The number one value of this airline is safety." Safety is a value, not a rule. It cannot be enforced. It's too vague. This statement is followed by three actual, enforceable rules. Fasten your seatbelts, shut off all electronic devices, and set tray tables and seatbacks in the upright position.1

The values explain the why of behavior, and the rules explain the what. Both are necessary. The two most important school and classroom values are:

  1. All students will be safe.
  2. Everyone here will learn.

Most rules can be determined from these two values. This method provides both motivation for following rules and clear, predictable lines between acceptable and unacceptable. If you want fewer rules, which I still think is a good idea, then don't clump them. Just cross some off your list.

Many teachers complain that they can't cover everything under this system. But that is its greatest strength. We don't need to cover everything and shouldn’t try. Informal interventions are far more effective than rule enforcement in changing student behavior.

We can strengthen this system even further by allowing and encouraging input from students and even their parents. Students are far more likely to follow rules based on their values than those from authority.

Let's stop deceiving students and ourselves into thinking we have only one rule when we have many. Let's find balance between values and rules. And let's communicate the truth to our students.


1From Curwin, Richard L. Affirmative Classroom Management: How do I develop effective rules and consequences in my school? by the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, Virginia. To be released in December 2013.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Great point - values vs. rules! And so true. Every year I think I may have it. I enlist the students in coming up with a list of 'agreements' we all vow to keep, including me. And then it seems like we have to have more and more 'agreements' every time a line is crossed! We do hold the values you mention, however. We all agree that everyone must be and feel safe. We all agree each one has the right and responsibility to learn. Our school rules are summed up under Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible. Those too, are values we can all agree to accept and promote. I suppose it is human nature to want to push the boundaries to see where they really are! However, rather than getting upset or frustrated, I like to ask, 'are you keeping our agreements?' And it is only fair that they get to ask me that as well. Not perfect, but civil, better than it has been, and I am still looking for something better! I appreciate your post.

Gil Reich's picture

Nice. Whenever I hear "Respect" I remember that that was the mantra of Sacha Baron Cohen on the Ali G show. It would be hard to imagine a person or a show who was more disrespectful of anybody who didn't share all his views and values. So it really meant "Respect people who accept all the truths that I know to be self-evident." The most intolerant people I know are the ones that talk the most about tolerance. And respect for diversity. We declare nice sounding platitudes, pat ourselves on the back, and then sanctimoniously do whatever we want. Thanks for this article.

Abbey's picture
English teacher living in CT

I really enjoyed the distinction between "rules" vs. "values." In my classroom, I use expectations rather than rules and the behaviors that are and are not acceptable fall under the broader umbrella of each expectation. Our school has seven core values, so my expectations and our core values go hand in hand. Plus, I find that rules, especially how they are outlined in this post, can be a challenge for students to grasp as they are not always concrete examples. "Respect" may be too abstract of a concept for some lower-functioning students to comprehend; however, a value or an expectation spells out exactly the behavior that I am looking for. Great article! :)

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educator, Blogger, Southern California

So true. Love your neighbor as yourself may summarize the Law of Moses, but there were plenty of specifics to help us get there. Kids are natural lawyers and really do need and appreciate specifics as to behavior--as well as consequences for both positive and negative behavior.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

This is such an important message! It's crazy to imagine that we all have the same interpretation of concepts like "respect." So often, I have seen kids get reprimanded because they have different backgrounds from the teachers, or because they do things they should "know better" not to do, when really, they may not necessarily know better; they really haven't been around long enough. I think so many adults forget all the years it took them to learn what they know now, and how uneven that process can be. We need to give kids the benefit of the doubt if they say they don't understand something, and be as explicit as we can be with our expectations.

One thing that can go a long way toward helping students understand our expectations is role-playing. Having students act out hypothetical situations and discussing the different options they have at any given moment can be so enlightening for both students and teachers.

Thanks for a great post.

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