When the television came on, it was still tuned the same sports channel I had left it on the night before. Shockingly, we were too busy snacking to change it to a different channel. During the first few minutes of the “sports-talk” show, we listened to the panelists scream over top of each other while they “debated” the topics of domestic violence, a baseball player yelling at an umpire and player fights during the NFL training camps. I checked the cable guide to make sure I hadn’t accidently switched to an episode of Jerry Springer. I looked at my son and turned off the TV. As we went back outside to play, I felt a bit dismayed that I couldn’t watch even 10 minutes of “sports-talk” with my son without exposing him to topics and behavior that seemed way out of line for a first grader.
In just a few days, 200 wide-eyed, innocent kindergarten students will come to Maplehurst Elementary and take their first steps into a 13-year journey of growth, development and education that is supposed to prepare them for life as a productive member of society. They will board our buses, walk down our halls and join their classmates for the first time.
Over the course of the next 13 years, those little ones will spend hours upon hours studying, doing homework and, thanks to the wisdom of our state legislature and department of education, taking test after test after test after test. Along the way, our collective influence as a community will mold them into a reflection of our values and ideals.
Our incoming kindergarten students will spend more than 2,300 days in school before they graduate. That’s a lot of time for their teachers to focus on the three R’s. Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic are the foundation of educational success. Unfortunately, there is a fourth “R” our world seems to be forgetting lately: Respect.
One does not have to look far to see almost countless examples of adults treating each other with a lack of respect. What is our society teaching our children about how to treat others? What do our children see on the news? What do they watch on television? What do they hear at sporting events when an official makes a questionable call? When people act hurtfully, disrespectfully and irresponsibly toward one another, are those actions condoned or condemned?
Respect cannot be learned online. It can’t be gleaned from a book. Those 200 little children starting at Maplehurst next week won’t learn about respect solely from a lecture or an assembly.
Respect isn’t taught; it is modeled. Our youngest students are our most impressionable and our most observant. They learn about behavior most easily through experience and by watching those around them. It doesn’t matter whether they are sitting behind a desk in class or walking under the Sky Ride at Cedar Point, children never stop learning. Every person they come across teaches them something about how to act and behave in the world. All of us are their role models and all of us are their teachers. There is no opting in or opting out of that responsibility. Even if you don’t have children or don’t work in a school, you can’t escape notice by small eyes and ears.
Trying to be consistently kind and respectful is undoubtedly challenging. I am as guilty as anyone of getting upset, frazzled and frustrated. There are moments I need to step back and take a few deep breaths. It can be very difficult, at times, to listen without judging or to act without questionable intent. At some point, we all reach our wits end and need a break. None of us will ever be perfectly respectful to one another one hundred percent of the time. It’s not going to happen. Fortunately, that does not mean we can’t keep working toward that goal. Every new day is another opportunity to be just a little better than we were the day before. Perfection is unattainable; but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
We owe it to our children to accept the challenge of being increasingly respectful to others. Taking a “do as I say, not as I do” approach just won’t work. If we want our children to be respectful to each other, we adults must do the same. They will do as we do. As much as we may prefer otherwise, our children will always be a reflection of ourselves.
When students across the country return to school this fall, their teachers, support personnel and administrators should do everything in their power to make sure the environment is safe and respectful. Students will learn that words and actions can either build up or tear down. They will be rewarded for good behavior and, when appropriate, face consequences for poor choices. Unfortunately, schools cannot operate in a vacuum and students don’t learn only between bells. As adults in society, we cannot expect our children to behave a certain way inside school while watching us behave differently outside school.
In a landmark free-speech ruling in 1972, the United States Supreme Court declared “students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.” The same basic principle should be applied to respectful behavior. Students don’t shed what we’ve taught them about respect at the schoolhouse gate. They cannot “flip the respectful behavior switch” when they walk on or off school property. They will act as they see us act. We cannot ask them to treat each other with respect when we, as a society, show them it is okay to do otherwise.
As our youngest and most observant learn about the four R’s, we will all be their teachers. We always have been and, like it or not, we always will be. Little eyes are always watching and little ears are always listening. I hope we teach them the right lessons.
Local columnist Corey Ream is the director of operations for Norwalk City Schools.