Students of color bear the invisible weight of systemic racism on a daily basis, experiencing racial microaggressions, negative stereotyping, and disproportionate discipline in schools. At the root of these issues, students see their identities, experiences, and rights not being respected. It comes as no surprise that this racial trauma can be detrimental to not only academic success among youth of color, but overall mental and physical well-being.

Teacher helping Black student, both smiling at each other

Though there have been momentous efforts in education reform to address racial inequities (from empathy programs to whole-school initiatives), there is still so much to do. Thankfully, there are tangible, actionable steps that we can take today to create a safe, welcoming classroom where our students of color feel respected. We suggest that the first place to start is to listen to what students of color have to say about their lived experiences of respect, both inside and outside the classroom.

In our study, we asked 45 middle school students of color about a time someone showed them respect. From their survey responses, we were able to identify when these students felt the most respected and what we, as educators and leaders who may have different racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds from our students, can do to create inclusive and equity-centered school climates. While based particularly on our study that prioritized the voices of students of color, these practices have the power to improve school experiences for all students.

When do students feel respected?

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Analyzing the student responses, we generated common themes in their experiences of respect. Student participants reported that they felt respected in the following situations.

They received help when they were in need. Students appreciated when their peers took responsibility for their own or even others’ actions, sharing examples of helping one another in the hallways or when someone was hurt. In a telling example involving school staff, Emilia shared: “When a substitute teacher wasn’t nice to me, the principal and staff listened and one kid helped me.” (All names in this piece are pseudonyms.)

It is evident that Emilia recognized disrespect coming from a substitute teacher, displaying how pressing these discussions are. Furthermore, the compounded respect from the principal and peer added to her ability to come out of the situation with assurance that she was heard and assisted.

Their boundaries were honored. Students often described setting clear boundaries with their friends or classmates, indicating that they felt respected when these boundaries were honored. Jada reported, “A time when someone showed me respect was when they respected my decision. My friend and I got into an argument, so I was really mad and my other friend asked if I wanted to talk about it and I said no, she respected my decision.”

They were appreciated. Students felt respected when receiving gifts, being praised by classmates or teachers, and hearing general displays of affirmation and respect. Rodrigo pointed out a nuanced example of being addressed with a Portuguese term that “you only normally call someone older than you,” even though he was younger than the person who used the term. This not only shows that the older student was showing him respect by using this term—it also exhibits respect transcending cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Their feelings, ideas, and perspectives were valued. We found many examples under this category, such as students receiving support when they felt sad, being listened to, and having their opinions heard and validated. Mira remarked, “While working on a project with another student we took turns talking and didn’t interrupt each other as we were talking about what to put next in our PowerPoint presentation.”

Students also described moments when they felt respected because their teachers appreciated their feelings. Something as simple as answering a question made all the difference for Leilani: “When I was in school with my teacher and I asked her a question, everyone else [thought] it was stupid, but she respected it and answered it.”

Their learning and growth was prioritized. Many students described examples where they were having trouble with classwork and one of their peers offered to help them. While some examples of respect involved classmates and friends, other examples included moments when educators both acknowledged and elevated students’ learning. For example, Anthony explained they felt respected “when my old math teacher gave me harder math because I finished the other math really fast.”

Recommendations for educators

We believe that, working with students every day, educators have the greatest opportunity to ensure their students of color feel respected in their classrooms. Based on our study, we have a few key recommendations.

1. Prioritize teacher-student relationships. Relationships are the bedrock of positive classroom culture and learning. Make time for getting to know and growing connections with your students—even two minutes a day can make a difference! Learner profiles, which are opportunities for students to describe themselves as a person and learner, are excellent ways to get started learning about their interests, values, and identities.

2. Cultivate peer relationships. When reflecting on respect, our students spoke most often about their peers. Create consistent opportunities for students to build positive, respectful relationships with all of their peers. This could include modeling positive interactions when you engage with students yourself, and promoting connections through common interests. 

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3. Redefine respect. Based on our findings, we see youth of color defining respect in expansive ways. Through a survey, small groups, or whole-class discussion, learn your students’ definitions and decide on classroom values and ways of being together as a community. For example, if students name feeling respected when their ideas are valued, this could translate into kind and thoughtful discussion norms within the classroom.

4. Show and tell. Numerous student responses explored small moments when they felt seen, heard, and affirmed. Showing students you respect them through small actions and words—such as thanking a student for their hard work, giving them space when they ask for it, learning a few words in their home language, or answering a question they were afraid to pose—all go a long way in communicating that you respect and care about them. 

5. Commit to racial equity. One of the most important ways that we can ensure we are respecting our students of color is by constantly reflecting on our own racial identities and biases and taking action to grow as anti-racist educators and human beings. This guide is a helpful place to begin developing your own lifelong commitment to racial equity.

Recommendations for leaders

Too often, we ask educators to change their practice without the institutional support to do so. For this reason, we include the following recommendations for education leaders, who can help shape school environments to support a more respectful climate.

1. Model respect. Shift school culture through the modeling of respect toward all school community members. Students are always watching and learning how to behave from the adults in their lives.

2. Measure what matters. In order to make and reach goals, we must know how we’re doing. Conducting surveys of the school climate is a great place to begin. School staff can identify what aspects of climate they would like to improve and then survey staff and students.

Additionally, it is important to keep equity in mind when using any data. For example, data disaggregation, an analytical process by which students are grouped by racial and ethnic identities, can be a powerful tool to identify gaps in supporting marginalized student groups.

3. Use professional development to prioritize respectful relationships. In addition to relying on the evidence-based resources shared above, work as a team with fellow educators. Using the 5 Whys—a process through which participants can identify root problems and solutions through asking “Why?”—is a great way to use community to problem-solve around classroom relationships in need of repair.

4. Commit to restorative practices. Hard work developing respectful relationships can be undone quickly with exclusionary discipline practices like suspension and expulsion, which disproportionately affect students of color and other marginalized youth. Shift to restorative practices, where students have the opportunity to develop important relationships and resolution skills. These practices prioritize accountability, respect, and community.

Students of color are experiencing racism in the world; it is our responsibility as educators and leaders to ensure that they are not experiencing the same in our schools and classrooms. With care, intentionality, and a whole lot of listening, we believe that educators and leaders have the power and opportunity to improve the ways in which students of color are experiencing school, transforming them into welcoming, affirming, respectful havens.

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