It’s All about Respect

After 26 years in the classroom, Kim Williams has learned a thing or two

By Stacie Williams

Illustrator: Susan Ruggles

Kim Williams working with a student.
-photo: Susan Ruggles

When Kim Williams walked into her first classroom on the southwest side of Chicago, she thought gaining students’ respect would be easy. After all, she reasoned, she had just graduated from college and could relate to them better than older teachers. And when it came to discipline, she figured she would simply talk to them the way the students talked to each other.

But 26 years later, experience has given her the perspective to see that her approach was the wrong one.

“I was young, naïve, and inexperienced,” she said. “In those early days there were some scary moments, because I didn’t know how to talk to a teenager.” Williams recalls a confrontation that occurred between her and a student after her first few weeks teaching students with special needs at Harper High School in Chicago and how badly she dealt with it.

“This girl said she was going to leave the classroom and I put my hand on the door, got in her face and said, ‘no, you’re not leaving. You’d better go sit down!’ The girl said she was going to knock me down. I told her to try it.”

At that point of heightened tension, an aide happened to be walking around the hallway, saw the confrontation, and brought back the assistant principal. The student was promptly suspended from school, and Williams was reprimanded by the administrator.

“You don’t put yourself in that kind of position,” says Williams. “If you want kids to respect you, then you have to show them respect – and the way to do that is to not holler at them or embarrass them in front of their peers. And this is especially true in the middle and high school grades.”

Williams has learned a lot about classroom discipline since her early days. She applies the same basic rule to all of her second grade students: “Discipline must be consistent and it must be fair,” she says. “Like, if two kids are fighting, both of them should have a consequence, regardless of who started it, because they both had the choice to tell an adult about it first.”

She also worked on her speaking. Veteran teachers at a different school told her that she used her voice too much with the students. “I didn’t understand what they meant at first,” she says. “I realized later that when you’re speaking to students, you might not have to talk so much or so loud.”

How orders are given in the classroom with that voice is just as important, according to Williams. “When you’re giving a directive with a student, especially with a teenager, you can’t say, ‘well, you’re gonna do such and such a thing,’ because they don’t accept that. You either ask or make a suggestion; you don’t just tell them because they will not respond,” she says.

For new teachers who are unsure of how to approach the issue of discipline in the classroom, Williams says to ask a veteran teacher or a mentor. “The best thing for a new teacher to do is ask, and that’s about everything. You can really mess up stuff if you don’t ask,” she warns. “They can help you with little things like organizing your classroom, new things with the curriculum, and open up your mind to ideas that you weren’t even aware of.”

In addition to consulting new teachers for help, she also emphasizes the need to have passion for the profession. “You gotta love these kids,” she says. “We’re here to educate, we’re here to nurture … and we must treat them like they can do anything positive they want to. Any child can learn anything with patience and hard work.”

In all, says Williams, running a classroom is not about being the “big, bad, savior.” It is about encouraging students – something that cannot be done without mutual respect on both sides. “I had to realize that when I was starting out,” she says, “And it was a good learning experience for me.” ?

Stacie Williams is the editorial assistant at Rethinking Schools.