As a high school sophomore, I loved debate. My coach was a quirky, intelligent man whom I greatly admired. I learned a lot from him. It bothered me, however, that he didn’t seem to respect me because of my choices.
I was a fledging animal rights activist, and had just opted to stop eating meat months before I’d even met this teacher. Upon learning this fact, he raised an eyebrow and remarked that he could never give up meat.
During each debate trip, he would take our team for barbecue, or to some other place famous for serving meat and little else. I found myself eating really bland salads. He would always say to me, “I’m curious to see what you will find to eat here.” I eventually learned to bring my own canned food on trips.
My admiration for my debate coach lessened over time. I wish that we could have had a candid conversation about how his disregard for my lifestyle hurt me. During my very last debate team dinner, he actually ordered vegetarian lasagna for me. Having been accustomed to finding my own food, I had already eaten before and declined the meal. I still wonder if he finally got it—or if he was mocking me during our final meeting.
This is a small example of the many ways teachers can be intolerant. I’ve witnessed colleagues speaking poorly of students who wore all black, or of boys who wore eyeliner. When I taught in Spain, I even heard one of my mentors berate a Romany child to his face, asking why he even attended school because of a seeming disdain for this young man who maintained a nomadic lifestyle and culture.
Teachers can reflect on how they teach their students, as well as on their own personal biases, to become more tolerant and respectful. We can role-play with one another to practice. There are tools like the Teacher Perception Tool that helps pinpoint areas where biases appear.
Teachers need to set the example for students and model what respectful behavior looks and sounds like.
As a student, I would have felt more included had my debate coach called ahead about menus to ensure some vegetarian options were available or even asked me where I’d choose to eat.
Working together is the ideal solution for all of these challenges that we face, but if individuals—particularly those in powerful seats—cannot respect others because of their lifestyle choices or other differences, that unification may be impossible. Students need to feel respected and supported by teachers. Coming to a teacher about a particular challenge or with a question should be a comfortable act, not one that causes pain, dread or even avoidance of school altogether.
Thankfully, most teachers do respect their students. It is up to these educators to help those who don’t to take their first steps.
Schmidt is a writer and editor based in Missouri.