Group of children sitting in chairs and standing celebrating

2020 has been an unprecedented year in our country. As schools address COVID-19 concerns in an environment of heightened attention to the fair treatment of people from all ethnic and cultural groups, educators are searching for strategies to ensure respectful communication and interactions in their classrooms.

Who doesn’t want to be respected and have their opinions and suggestions valued? Deep down, each of us is striving for respect and value in our relationships with others. The students in our classrooms are no different. While they may sometimes struggle with their method of self-expression, each student strives for this type of relationship with the paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators with whom they interact on a daily basis.

However, these respectful relationships don’t develop on their own. Our classrooms are a mixed bag of students with differing abilities and differing degrees of willingness to engage in respectful conversations. It is the task of the educator to build the classroom environment conducive to this type of atmosphere.

Too rigid and the teacher develops an environment of compliance with little real student discussion. Too loose and the teacher creates a chaotic environment where students are afraid to engage in quality discussions with the teacher and other students. The ideal environment lies somewhere in the middle where the teacher utilizes appropriate authority to create a safe space for classroom discussions and activities and relaxed enough for students to feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions.

As both a former building and district administrator, I often worked with teachers on how to establish a respectful culture in their classrooms. Below are some of the strategies I have often recommended to new and experienced teachers for this purpose.

Create and Maintain Fair Procedures

One aspect of respect for students is in the creation of classroom procedures that allows for smooth operation of the classroom. Teachers should use their authority to establish and implement classroom procedures in a fair manner, taking into account that our students come from different backgrounds and cultures. These procedures should always be reviewed to ensure they don’t become barriers to student interactions and learning.

Many of our students have experienced disrespect and unfairness. Some may be unaccustomed to consistent fair and respectful treatment. Establishing a classroom where students routinely experience fair classroom practices can build student trust in the classroom environment and help build a respectful culture.

However, this may take time for some students and only serves to reinforce the importance for teacher and student modeling of fair practices. Over time, students can come to understand, despite what may occur in other places, the classroom is a trusted space for fairness.

Strategies to establish fair classroom procedures include:

  • Inspecting class rules, polices, and procedures to be sure they are sensitive to differences in gender, culture, race, religion, etc.
  • Asking students and their families to let you know (privately) if their attendance, participation, etc. will be affected by observing religious holidays or practices or due to a disability, etc.
  • Using the same grading standards for all students
  • Avoiding only using examples from personal experience; find examples that might be given by those from other groups, too.
  • Being aware that not all students speak standard English at home; be clear about why you are teaching standard English, but don’t be disrespectful about other forms of speech.

Demonstrate and Set Expectations for Respectful Communication

Unfortunately, all students don’t arrive at school with respect for their teachers. While they may hope that their teacher can be counted on to care about them and their learning, many will take a “wait and see” attitude.

When teachers call students by name, ask questions about how they are doing, and listen to students, they demonstrate respect. These actions clearly communicate a nonbiased, respectful environment if the teacher engages similarly with all students regardless of their individual backgrounds. When teachers give respect, they typically receive respect in return. Combine this with clear expectations and unemotional corrections when necessary, and students will understand their teacher is dedicated to each of his or her students.

The creation of student relationships and day-to-day predictability helps ease student anxiety and encourages students to take risks and engage in classroom discussions and activities. Over time, even the most cautious of students will begin to see the teacher’s respect for them and concern for their well-being.

Another important aspect for creating a culture of respect is for teachers to ensure their classroom is free of humiliation, yelling, berating, intimidation, bullying, and other aggressive behaviors, not only from students but also from the teacher. If the teacher fails to establish this atmosphere, his or her students will not be comfortable taking a risk in classroom communication or with their learning.

The desired result is a classroom where students are comfortable exchanging ideas with each other and the teacher but also where they can think for themselves. Too often our students want the teacher to walk them through to an answer without gaining a true understanding of the skill or concept. The teacher must strive to build the capacity of students to work together to gain this understanding.

Strategies to encourage respectful communication and establish personal connections include:

  • Providing students and families with a diversity statement or teaching philosophy at the beginning of the school year to welcome all students and model openness and diversity.
  • Discussing personal learning experiences and challenges when appropriate.
  • Providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own or others’ thinking to develop empathy.
  • Asking students to write a mini-biography to help you get to know them (and each other).

Promote Respect through Student Collaboration

Students often have incredible insight and understanding of their learning, but they may lack the vocabulary to appropriately express their thoughts. The fear of making a mistake often keeps students from participating in classroom discussion, or they may engage in inappropriate behavior to deflect attention from their lack of engagement with learning.    

Teachers may address this concern by creating clear ground rules for student discussion. Once students understand the ground rules about what is and what is not acceptable, the teacher can allow for student discussions of lesson topics.

Student comments and input into the lesson must then be valued even if this input expresses unpopular opinions. Students can be taught to respect others’ thoughts even if they are not in agreement. The strength of the conversation is the sharing of ideas and understanding others’ perspectives.

In addition, students must be taught that failure is an opportunity for students to review their work and grow from the experience. When students can see that discovering the reasons for failure can create the beginning of understanding, they will see early failures as a step in the learning journey. When we teach students to overcome obstacles and persevere through their mistakes, we teach them to be problem solvers.

To avoid discouraging conversation, the teacher must communicate how failure must be respectfully treated within the classroom. This must be modeled first by the teacher and then applied through guided practice with the students. By doing so, it is possible for everyone to understand the value in learning from mistakes and from the unique perspectives of each of the students and the teacher.

Strategies for classroom collaborations and discussions that promote respect include:

  • Promoting student buy-in by enlisting students to help create and maintain rules/norms for discussion.
  • Offering a quiet minute for students to develop their responses to key questions or write down new questions before calling for responses.
  • Anticipating potential responses to controversial topics and consider how you will address students’ assumptions and biases
  • Being sensitive to underrepresented students who may feel uncomfortable expressing their opinions and feelings. Don’t allow them to be seen as representative of the group.
  • Watching for gender dynamics during discussions; don’t allow male voices to dominate.
  • Using small groups to encourage noncompetitive ways of learning and encourage cross-cultural communication. Students who are hesitant to speak up in class may be more comfortable if they share first in a small group.

Respectful Communication Missteps

As with anything we undertake, there will be times when respectful communication fails. When students make inappropriate comments or have a conflict with the teacher, all eyes will be on the teacher to see his or her reaction.

Every scenario will have to be handled differently depending on the situation. However, in each situation it will be important for the teacher to do the following:

  • Address the situation: Students will be looking for the teacher to address the situation, and failure to protect the respectful classroom environment may cause damage to the classroom safe-space atmosphere.
  • Remain calm: Students need to see the teacher as capable of handling the situation. By remaining calm and unemotional and responding to the students in an appropriate tone and voice level, the teacher may often deescalate the situation. Even if the teacher must request help with the situation and/or send the student out of the classroom environment, the other students need to see the teacher has the skills to protect their safe space in a calm manner.
  • Start over: Everyday must be a new day in terms of respectful communication, and it’s important for all students to see that the teacher’s expectations for respectful communication continue for all students including those involved in a prior conflict.

No one really knows all the challenges teachers will face in the 2020-2021 school year, but it’s safe to say that our students and their parents will look to teachers to not only provide a quality education for their students but to also be a stable part of their lives. Whether this education is provided in physical classrooms or through remote learning, teachers must provide a safe space for learning built on respectful two-way communication.

If you have questions concerning this topic, would like additional ideas, or need extra support, feel free to email nee@missouri.edu. We look forward to continuing to work with you throughout this school year and beyond.

Chuck Mayes is a NEE trainer and field support representative. He retired in 2020 after 30 years in K-12 public education where he served as a teacher, elementary principal, middle school principal, and for eight years as the Sikeston Chief Academic Officer/Assistant Superintendent working with curriculum, assessment, gifted education, and virtual learning.


The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.