01 October 2005

Rethinking Respect

I just realised that Carl Skadian's Life! article was part of the Straits Times fatherhood series, about daddies and such. Bah. It was such a lousy "fatherhood" article that I didn't even realise until now that it was supposed to be a "fatherhood" article. Let Mr Wang offer you something more interesting to read, on the topic of fatherhood.

In the Comments section of my preceding post, my readers raised some interesting points about respect. Should students respect teachers, simply because teachers are teachers and students are students? Also, should children respect parents, simply because parents are parents and children are children?

Sleepless in Singapore wrote:
    "I have no experience as a teacher, but I do conduct a lot of training for adults. In recent years, I have had opportunity to train professionals from neighbouring Asean countries. I find that their attitude towards the trainer is so respectful and appreciative. I really enjoy teaching them and am motivated to go the extra mile even though the fee I get from them is much lower.

    Singaporeans, on the other hand tend to treat trainers like other service providers like waiters, or taxi drivers. If you read Br BL Ogs, blog, you will see that they treat doctors in much the same way.

    In conclusion, I think this is an unhealthy trend. If principals don't do something about it, they are not doing their jobs. And you parents out there, if you do not do something about it, the next blog you read could be about what a rotten dad or mum you are."
I largely disagree with Sleepless's position. In fact, it is perhaps psychologically impossible for me to agree with him. My brain simply does not work that way. As I have mentioned previously, I am an INTJ, and here is what Keirsey has to say about INTJs:
    To INTJs, authority based on position, rank, title, or publication has absolutely no force. This type is not likely to succumb to the magic of slogans, watchwords, or shibboleths. If an idea or position makes sense to an INTJ, it will be adopted; if it doesn't, it won't, regardless of who took the position or generated the idea. As with the INTP, authority per se does not impress the INTJ.

In other words, Mr Wang is unable to respect a teacher for being a teacher. Mr Wang is only able to respect teachers for teaching well. This is a notorious Mr Wang characteristic which generally defines his relationships with people all arouind him.

In Mr Wang's ideal world, the same would apply in schools. Teachers would not be respected simply by virtue of their status as teachers. Respect has to be earned. Bad teachers deserve no respect simply by virtue of their status as teachers.

And frankly, I do not think that I am placing very high standards on teachers. The average teacher is older than his young charges; he is therefore much more experienced; he has been educated to a higher level; he ought to know his subject far better than his student; he has received professional training for his job; he should be a mature person. He should be able to teach well enough to earn his students' respect.

And what about parents and children? Sleepless wrote:
    And you parents out there, if you do not do something about it, the next blog you read could be about what a rotten dad or mum you are.
To this, I would say that if you are a rotten dad or mum, then surely your children would be perfectly correct to think that you are a rotten dad or mum. Your children must be rather stupid or at least naive, if you are a rotten dad or mum, and they did not know it.

If you accidentally stumble across your child's blog where he writes that you are a rotten dad or mum, then you should treat this as a wake-up call. You should even consider yourself lucky. You've just got a chance to look straight into your child's mind. You are being confronted with your child's genuine opinion about you. It may not be pleasant, but it is genuine.

There is no point in saying, "How dare you write this, you insolent child!" and then proceed to punish the child. Instead you should take time out to reflect on what has caused your child to feel this way about it. If there is something rotten about you, then you should fix yourself. If there is a breakdown in the communication between yourself and the child, then that is what you need to fix.

Mr Wang is a parent too. He has two young children. The younger one is too young to have too many opinions. But the older one is precocious and has opinions about everything under the sun (sigh, so much like his father). I encourage him to have opinions, to express views, to say what he likes and does not like. It is never too early to start teaching your children to think for themselves.

If a young child misbehaves, it is the easiest thing in the world to shout and yell and pull out a cane and intimidate the child into submission - but is that right? Is that really "respect"? I don't think so. You have to look at the root cause of the misbehaviour. Often it will at least be partially due to your own failings as a parent - for example, the child may be misbehaving to get your attention because you just haven't been giving him enough. In the end, parents should earn their children's respect through their own behaviour - parents must conduct themselves in such a way that their children look up to them.

Does Mr Wang always live up to his own professed standards? Alas, no. Mr Wang is an imperfect father. There have been occasions when Mr Wang lost his temper and treated his children (especially the mischevious older one) in ways that he later regretted. But Mr Wang will always strive to be a better father. That is his duty, and the duty of all the daddies in the world. Daddies will never quite reach perfection, but that's no reason not to strive for it.


Sleepless in Singapore said...

When I say principals and parents should do something, I don't mean to "punish" them into giving you respect like they do to army recruits. I mean they shd recognise that it is symptomatic of a serious situation when large numbers of students hold teachers in contempt and write malicious, slanderous comments for the whole world to see so as to exact maximum hurt from the targets of their disdain. They should educate children to respect the position that teachers have be accorded to teach, guide and even discipline children.

As for parents' role, I have 3 teenage children. Of course at the dinner table, they do occasionally shoot off about some of their teachers; but very rarely do they phrase it is derogatory or irresponsible terms; definitely no vulgarities - not just because they know I disapprove but because they simply know that it is wrong. They know how hard a teacher's job is and how unthankful it can be sometimes. And they know because theeir mum is a teacher.

C.K said...

ho ho ho... kudos to Mr Wang for ur very objective point of view...

wahahahah im an INTJ too!!! took the test in my sec school...

im linking ur blog to my blog! :D

Huichieh said...

Could there be a distinction between:

1. Respecting a teacher (for his/her teaching abilities)--which is what you are talking about mostly.

2. Acting respectfully toward the teacher (whatever one might think about his/her abilities)--surely we owe some minimal respect in this sense (all things equal) to everyone, even criminals.

They don't look like the same thing to me, and consequently, their negations don't look the same either.

1'. Not thinking much about a teacher's abilities, and in this sense not respecting him/her.

2'. Behaving disrespectfully toward the teacher.

Does 1' necessarily entail 2'? I don't think so. If the kids are in the wrong, it's in the ballpark of 2'. Sure, they might be excused because of immaturity, etc. but bringing in the abilities of the parents does not resolve the issue completely.

In addition: If one is willing to expand on 2 and 2' a bit, one could also get:

3. Acting respectfully toward the person on account of his/her position or role (whatever one might think about his/her abilities). For example, when we behave respectfully toward the (old style, purely ceremonial) Head of State, we do so "out of respect" for the position itself (we might almost say that the *person* is not the one we are concerned about; so much so that the person who fills those shoes could even be said to "disrespect the position he himself occupies" if he fails to behave properly).

And the negation 3'. Another example would be judges. Some might well have better abilities than others. Some might only be mediocre. But no matter how mediocre, surely they still deserve respect in the sense of 2 even if they are (obviously) not respected in the sense of 1. And I would argue that if the fella is really a judge, I would still respect him for his position in the sense of 3 out of respect for the rule of law in this country. (Unless he is positively evil, of course.)

Teachers are not judges, I know, but couldn't analogous arguments be made?

Huichieh said...

NB: My comments refer mostly to teachers. Parents are another kettle of fish altogether in that to speak nowadays of a "position" of being one (in the sense relevant to the discussion) may involve more complication.

Anthony said...

Mr Wang,

There's a difference I think I should bring up. Your argument is premised on "giving respect where respect is due". I suspect the phenomenon Singapore teachers are facing is "not being given respect even if respect is due".

Here we have anecdotal evidence that a teacher, no matter how good/engaging/inspiring he is, we still have disrespect. I'm talking about the stories of students, when caught red-handed stealing, accusing teachers planting evidence. etc etc.

I agree that suing students is not the answer, and neither is an increasingly draconian measure teacher control. It begs the question - what is an adequate measure? If there is absolutely no downside to complete, utter disrespect, what incentives a student to even bother?

Sleepless in Singapore said...

I think Huichieh is right. It boils down to semantics.

I checked the dictionary and found 2 meanings for the word respect.

a) The state of being admired or well thought of.

b) Consideration of or attention to someone or something, e.g. show no respect for the law. The opposite is 'disrespect'.

So when Mr Wang says, respect should be earned, he is referring to (a). When I say, students should show respect for teachers (by not writing derogatory, hurtful things where the whole can see), I am referring to (b).

So I presume that if Mr Wang's employer were to invite a minister to attend a function in his co. as the guest-of-honour, Mr Wang would, like any matured professional show his respect by being seated before the GOH arrives, and standing up when he enters the hall even if he is somebody that Mr Wang has little admiration for.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Actually I think that many of us are talking about different things. But it's interesting all the same. :)

Another underlying point in this discussion is whether you think of respect primarily as an internal or external thing.

If the people whom I regularly deal with think poorly of me, I'd rather know upfront. It is better than having them behave in an outwardly "respectful" manner to me, when actually they are thinking all kinds of evil thoughts about me. Quite regardless of whether they are also blogging these thoughts or not.

Huichieh said...

Apologies for a long one coming...

It's not just that "whether you think of respect primarily as an internal or external thing"--because there is in fact more than one thing to think about here. Which is why while Mr. Wang is right to say that we are "talking about different things"--this may nevertheless prove to be the undoing of his original post as a rejoinder to Sleepless. That is, the point about respect being earned, the fatherhood analogy, etc., all stand; but they won't be a counter argument to Sleepless' original point, which was about respectful behavior, showing consideration--especially in the context of showing consideration to someone in virtue of his/her position as a teacher.

Incidentally, the Chinese has a number of different terms for the complex of phemomena that English rather indiscriminately throw together under "respect". The stuff Mr. Wang was talking about, for example, is best understood to be in the ballpark of 敬佩. Sleepless, on the other hand, was talking about stuff in the ballpark of 尊敬.

And secondly, both respect in the sense of "showing consideration" and "admiration (for one's abilities/character)" have internal and external dimensions. The original quotation of Sleepless actually hints at both: he talks about the Asean trainees' "attitude towards the trainer" as being "respectful and appreciative". On the other hand, he also say that the Singaporeans "tend to treat trainers like other service providers like waiters". The thing about respectful behavior and its contrary of disrespectful behavior is precisely that the behavior (conventionally, publically) embodies attitude--and it is the attitude (as manifested in action and words) that makes it respectful or disrespectful.

Note also that in this context (of respectful behavior), the opposite of respect behavior is disrespect--this actually suggests that the bar of respect (not-disrespect) is not all that high. Hence trisha talks about expecting "a minimal amount of respect". This locution would be somewhat odd for respect-as-admiration. Respectful behavior is actually just a minimum bar of appropriate behavior between decent and civil people--nothing to write home about. Those who show respect are not praised; though those who show disrespect are in some sense in a bad way.

Respect-as-admiration, on the other hand, is above and beyond mere civility, so to speak. It is always earned. No one deserves our respect in this sense without having earned it. And even if we don't respect someone for his fabulous ability, we are not so much "in a bad way" as far as civility is concerned. At worse, we would be proud, or have high standards.

I'm sure the teachers who are actually in the system will have more to say, but I do get the sense that the state of respectful behavior towards teachers, principals, people in (nominal) positions of authority, or just other people in general, is not exactly rosy. As a sometime teacher myself, I don't expect my students to go wah wah over my abilities. But I do expect them to show due consideration to me, to the lecturer, and to their classmates! It's just basic civility. All this does not resolve the original problem of what can be done, so to speak, in face of blatant disrespectful behavior. (Lawsuits are just dumb...)

On Mr. Wang's last point: "if the people whom I regularly deal with think poorly of me, I'd rather know upfront. It is better than having them behave in an outwardly "respectful" manner to me, when actually they are thinking all kinds of evil thoughts about me."

Keep your friends close, and your enemy closer, as they say. But more seriously, this point, while it makes good sense in its own right, is not really cogent for the original issue at hand. Let me go back to the context of the teacher-student relation.

First of all, whether the student thinks evil thoughts or not, I think he or she would still have a duty to be civil--and respect in that minimal sense. It's not just for the teacher, but for the climate of the class/school as a whole. This point will still stand even if as a matter of "strategic advantage" for the teacher, it is "better" that the student be "upfront".

Secondly, students don't generally "think all kinds of evil thoughts about their teachers" for no reasons at all. There is always some cause--perceived unfairness or incompetence, or favoritism, etc. But students have to ask themselves: do such reasons really warrent disrespectful behavior? In any case, behaving respectfully toward someone need not rule out criticism. The question is how those criticisms are voiced, or is the emotion just expressed--that is, is the point to just blow steam, or to see if things can be improved?

Jayce said...

What Sleepless in Singapore said is right about training adults in Singapore. I'm involved in training and Singaporean do not give a damn bit of respect to trainers. It's utterly disgraceful to see them in training classes with participants from other countries.

To many, they do not see the training as beneficial and see themselves as being "forced" to attend, thus, instead of embracing the lessons with an open-mind, they drift at every opportunity.

I think this tells alot about respect in the eyes of Singaporeans. Though I agree that we should not respect the trainers just for them being trainers, we should recognise that these trainers are experts, or at least knows pretty much about their field of study, to be able to train other people.

And I guess what Sleepless in Singapore faced is not lack of respect, but lack of basic courtesy. It's not polite to talk constantly when someone else is presenting something, and that's what the locals are doing.

Sleepless in Singapore said...

Thank you Huichieh for the detail explanation/commentary. But what do you think of my comment that this trend of more and more students 'flaming' their teachers is unhealthy and what can be done about it.

For me, I think parents have an important role;

1)By not being over-protective and 'anyhow complain'.

2)By themselves showing respect to the teaching profession and taking every opportunity to praise the teachers in front of the children.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Frankly I am not very convinced that this new "trend" is a reflection of any attitudinal/cultural change among Singaporean students. That is to say, I think that if blogging had been available 10 years ago, then Singaporean students may very well have started blogging negatively about their teachers 10 years ago.

I am somewhat tickled by Mugster's comment:

"And I definitely do think that youngsters are getting more insolent these days. And I am only 22. On the MRT you have students blasting rap/rock music through their earphones, which can be heard in the whole cabin."

Tickled because I am about a decade older than Mugster, yet I still remember being a secondary school student and how teachers would punish students for listening to their Walkman while taking an SBS bus. And nevertheless students would do it. And are they still listening to rap these days!? I guess things haven't changed much.

I guess the technology changes, but the behaviour doesn't. Don't you remember? When you were a kid, you probably wrote "Ms Tan is a frustrated old spinster idiot!" on your school desk. Now you get to write the same thing, but online. The most material difference is that nowadays, it seems, teachers contemplate suing their students over such remarks.

Also, Sleepless, I really have to disagree with you on your 2nd point about what parents should do. You say that parents should themselves "take every opportunity to praise the teachers in front of the children". I disagree. I wouldn't praise anyone unless I really thought that he had done something praiseworthy. On the flip side of the coin, the same for criticism. I wouldn't criticise anyone unless I felt that there was something that should be criticised.

On external trainers and Singaporeans' attitudes, well, I know how the typical Singapore organisation handles its training programmes annd I am not surprised at Singaporeans' reactions. Department heads often need to demonstrate that they has sent each subordinate to at least X hours of training per year. To make up the numbers, employees are therefore sent for whatever course that comes along, never mind that the course may be inappropriate or irrelevant to their needs. Hence the lackadaisaical, disinterested attitude shown by the employees at the course. It is not necessarily anything personal to do with the trainer.

One anecdote. I studied at NUS, and at NUS, there is a university policy that if you skip more than X% of your tutorials, you would be barred from taking your exams.

At the Law Faculty, however, there were a few tutors who would tell their students at the start of the year that they should feel free to skip their tutorials if they didn't want to attend. They would not be barred from any exam.

I kinda liked that. Some other tutors feel that the student shows disrespect if he doesn't attend his tutorials. The more-enlightened tutors trust students to make their own judgements. If you don't find the tutorial helpful, don't come. If you prefer to self-study, don't come. It's okay. If you come, come because you want to and you think that the tutorial is educational for you.

Huichieh said...

NUS tutorial attendance policy has changed; but I'm not certain of the details. I remember the old system--and hated it. Because I really dislike having to send such letters (had to do it once when tutoring). University students are adults, if they don't want to come, it should be consider "their own problem"...

I tend to agree with Mr. Wang that it's hard to say if "youngsters are getting more insolent" these days in any simple way given that changing circumstances and technology can certain bring out new forms of essentially age old tricks. I'm sure if we dig hard enough there must have been tablets with "Mr Scribicus stinks" in the ruin of some roman schoolroom...

Here, I think we should be clear about what is at stake. Just how much "respect" is being asked for? Is it more in the direction of civility? Or is it more in the direction of deference? Especially a "default deference" that is given to teachers just because they are teachers. (Incidentally, deference to teachers is not an uniquely Chinese thing. I once had an Israeli student in Berkeley who told me that she didn't feel comfortable raising questions or challenging me in class because it seems rude to the teachers! I had to reassure her: you are in America now...)

On this score, while I don't think civility has really degenerated a lot (it's always been some good, some bad--mostly because of immaturity), deference has definitely been disappearing. My wife who has had some teaching experience (before she was whisked on nopay leave to America...) pointed out something interesing. The newer pedagogical philosophy of having the teacher as a facilitator rather than a old fashion instructor--and an increasing student awareness of this--has generated a new boldness on the part of the students. They are also much less shy about making open assessments of the teachers' abilities, especially if they don't think much of the teacher. Presumably such behavior would have been unthinkable in an older climate when deference was the default.

This also means while I am sympathetic to trisha's assessment (the students "students now are failing in No. 2 & 3"), I don't think it's a new problem per se. It's always been around. It has now been made more complicated, to be sure, by a new intolerance of the harsher disciplinary techniques and other developments (such as pedagogical philosophy), but the essential problems may not be new at all. But I'm not sure--trisha is on the frontlines and I'm not.

Frankly, I really do not know what parents can do. Now I did go to a Chinese primary school where discipline was taken very seriously and you bow when saying Good Morning Teacher (or Lao Shi Zao An), and that sort of thing, etc., etc. And I am somewhat inclined to believe that perhaps modern parenting has somehow downplayed the role of deference to parents, elders, and people in authority in general. And it is at least believeable that if a family cultivates an attitude to deference, some things might improve. But I don't believe that it's something parents can just train their kids in; rather it's an entire culture of deference--we can't expect the kids to show more deference than we would to our own parents, elders, etc.

Secondly, and most importantly, I am at best half convinced of the goodness of a culture of old fashioned deference. It is often confused with blind obedience to authority that is not compatible with democratic citizenship.

Olorin said...

Hmm Huichieh, I've taught in schools like Trisha's (I think she was describing something pretty much like what I experienced). I am also teaching in an environment comparable to the one your wife experienced before she was whisked away on NPL.

I think in assessing the question of how much respect (Type 2) is being accorded to school teachers today as compared to the past, there is a need to consider also the kind of school we talk about. I make this point because this entire pedagogical approach of being a facilitator rather than instructor works in some schools but not in others.

In a school like the one I used to teach in, this approach fails because of the low level of courtesy (and - more forgivably, but not as relevant to this discussion - capacity and motivational issues) of students. So this boldness, in effect outright rudeness, in such schools as I experienced is hardly justified as they are not delivering on their part of the deal (which is to carry out the learning the teacher is supposed to facilitate). Being rude, disruptive and attention seeking certainly does not help those of their classmates who are trying to learn.

Trisha - if you're still lurking around here and you remember a certain Victor from 'hee-haw 99-00' ('only the best need apply?'), could you send me an email please? I'm just wondering if you are THAT Trisha. My email addy's on my profile.

shadow said...

Funnily enough, i just blogged separately about a past experience with a teacher who could not answer my questions.

That teacher might have considered the very act of asking questions an act of disrespect, so it really depends what how the actions of the students are interpreted by teachers of an older generation.