The Big Nephew has just completed his first season as a signed footballer (I find it both wonderful and hilarious that playing for a local under 9s team can sound like the premiership). Last week, he announced with pride that his team had won the league, which was a bit confusing to me since they lost all but one of their matches during the season. For this age group, however, medals are given not for winning but for accumulating ‘respect points’, which are awarded by referees to teams at the end of each match. A quick google suggests that the FA’s Respect campaign, a long-term initiative applying to all age groups and tiers within the organization, has had mixed results so far. But for this particular group of children it seems to be a success. Indeed, based on the Big Nephew’s experiences this year, I wonder if the field of music education would benefit from adopting some of the FA’s approaches – which is another question, for another time.
Who do we respect? Why? A variety of events have prompted reflection on who I respect, who I think respects me, who I seek respect from, who might seek it from me. This ties in with some of my reading about labelling theory, and how labels affect our perceptions of an individual’s skills, potential and importance. I’m realizing that some labels have different meanings, and different levels of value, depending on culture and context. On a Radio 4 programme a couple of years ago the presenter, a German, observed that when asked ‘What do you do?’, a Brit is likely to say ‘I work at the hospital’, whereas an American is likely to tell you their specific role at the hospital. I don’t know if this is actually a recognized cultural difference, but it’s interesting to reflect on how these different responses might shape a conversation and the development of a relationship. How do such initial introductions influence how we perceive people? To what further questions we ask, to how valuable we they think are, and how valuable we assume they will think we are? To how much we respect them? I am increasingly uncomfortable with conversations that begin ‘what do you do/what is your research about/where did you study’ etc. If this is what we respect and value, what does it say about the people who cannot or do not answer those questions? A friend who has worked as a cleaner mentioned that there is a stigma around the job title. Yet it requires huge levels of physical strength, skill, discretion, trust. Plus it matters to people that you actually turn up, which is something I’ve struggled with massively since leaving teaching. Bluntly put, I miss being needed. It seem that feeling valuable to others is also valuable to me.
Who do we respect, and how do we demonstrate it, in schools? Some adults, teachers in particular, often expect to be automatically respected by children. During my data collection visits, there were times when some children and adults appeared uncertain about my status within the systems of the school. I didn’t try to enforce school rules about behaviour and often showed up wearing denim, clutching a Starbucks cup, playing on my phone in moments of idleness. How much about respect, and position within a community, is about following rules – and knowing what the purpose of the rules are? On a related note, I had expected to respect the children who I interviewed during data collection visits, yet I am pleasantly surprised by just how much respect I grew to have for them. They almost unanimously exceeded my expectations, sharing ideas that were thoughtful, and full of thought. And they showed much more awareness of social influences and factors than I had anticipated, often more awareness of these things than many adults would. How do expectations tie in to respect? And assumptions about respect to expectations of self and others?
There are other thoughts about respect and labelling. Thoughts about how hierarchies affect our levels of respect to self and others, and how labels help to maintain these hierarchies and our places within them. Thoughts about how so many adults within education now show great respect to their pupils by recognizing their individual needs, and how this can generate labels that may be simultaneously supportive, or limiting, or encouraging, or daunting. And also thoughts about how far we still have to go with showing the same level of respect to the individual needs of those adults. This is apparent in structural features of education systems (for example, attitudes towards flexible working are a recurring theme on my twitter feed) but also in colleague interactions and expectations. Our colleagues have varying physical, social and emotional needs, just as children do. Yet so often adults are expected to conform to situations in ways that can stifle and even harm.
So, maybe both children and adults actually deserve greater respect, or more thoughtful application of respect. If we start to treat all children and adults in education with the same level of respect, what would change? Our expectations about contribution and capability might be very different, and this might in turn influence how respect is portioned out and how it is demonstrated. What would this do to the existing hierarchies in your own context?