Don’t Skip over the Stuffed Turtle: Some Thoughts on Respectful Communications

By Jonathan Farmer
English Department

At the start of every school year, I give my students a guide on sending respectful emails. A few days in, we do an exercise in which they make up a complaint and then send me an email about it, using the guide to help them compose. Their creativity, as in so many things our students do, is always delightful. For example:

  • I noticed that every time my stuffed turtle raised his hands to answer a question you asked, you would skip over him every time, as if he didn’t exist.”
  • “I am writing this email to inform you that the trapped souls under the basement of the classroom have been extra loud lately, and it is making it very hard to focus. If I may ask you, have you been feeding them lately? If you need more ghost juice and dust bunnies I am sure us students could pitch in and help you if you ever need it.”
  • We are eternally grateful for your incentive to get more sleep. Everyone has late nights, we understand, and a groggy Mr. Farmer is no Mr. Farmer at all. However, you snore, in a very loud manner as well. I believe everyone would benefit if you invested in a lumbar pillow or perhaps get more sleep the night before.”
  • “I would like to bring up a concern my classmates and I share about your underwater classroom. Although having an underwater classroom has its benefits, like being an unlimited drinking source, and free swimming lessons, there are also some negative outcomes as well. First of all, many students do not have the ability to hold their breath for the 57 minute period. Also paper does not stay together well underwater and it has become very difficult to write. We cannot use computers anymore, as they would electrocute the class and there have been many tragedies to this day.”

And I could quote dozens more just as creative as these.

The point, I try to explain to them, is not to get them to think of me as an authority figure, but rather to use this one microcosm of our larger world as a chance to practice recognizing and acknowledging each other’s humanity. And I make them a promise: I will work to hold myself to the same standards when I communicate with them. 

The first rule in my classroom is always the same: “Everyone belongs here. Make sure your words and actions reflect that.” It’s a rule for me, too. Sometimes, I fall short. Those are some of my worst moments as a teacher, the times when I feel like I’ve fallen the furthest from my own ideals and responsibilities. In doing so, I’ve not only hurt someone, I’ve also modeled that behavior for my students. At that point, all I can is try to make amends–and to at least model a meaningful way of responding to my own mistakes.

There’s one other part of this: if I do get a rude or insulting email, I reply as politely as possible, trying again to model for students what I’d like to see from them, asking the student to rewrite the email, using the guide, before I address the issue at hand. Occasionally–not often, but occasionally–I’ll also get a message from a parent or guardian that feels insulting. In those cases, I don’t ask the person to rewrite the email, but when I respond I include a note asking that person, as politely as possible, to treat me kindly, and promising to do the same in turn. Even if I’ve made a mistake, I want to insist on my humanity (after all, being human means that we will inevitably make mistakes), and I think we all benefit from a community in which everyone is honored as someone worthy of kindness and consideration.

I want to make a plea: let’s all do our best to slow down and treat each other with kindness, even–maybe especially–when we’re upset. And I want to note, too, that we do have a school policy covering this, one that each new family signs when they come to Hawbridge. My hope is that we don’t need rules and consequences to remind us to be good to each other, but it doesn’t seem like that’s always the case. The entire Code of Conduct is below, but I’ll end with one passage that’s especially germane–”Respectful communication is at the heart of our school values, and is an expectation from families, students, and school faculty and staff. This is the most important component of our Code of Conduct and when followed, supports an inclusive and supportive school community.”–as well one lesson I’ve learned over my years of teaching: Underwater classrooms just don’t work. Who knew?

Code of Conduct Policy for Families and Visitors

Approved by the Board of Directors 2/19/2020

The Hawbridge School Code of Conduct for Families and Visitors

This Code of Conduct is an agreement between families, visitors, and The Hawbridge School. The purpose is to clarify expectations around the conduct of all families and visitors connected to our school in order for everyone to feel safe, respected, and valued. It is also important for families to make sure that any persons picking up their children or visiting Hawbridge are aware of this policy.

At The Hawbridge School, we are proud and fortunate to have a dedicated and supportive school community. We highly value our teachers and administration and have great respect for the warm, caring environment that they create so that all of our students can thrive. Similarly, we recognize and value the diverse cultures and identities that Hawbridge families bring to our school community. It is our desire to foster an environment in which all families feel they are part of our inclusive community and feel welcomed and valued. For this to occur, we ask that families participate fully in the life of our school, and we encourage families to communicate ways in which we can help their child to feel valued and supported within our school community. It is our belief that by working together and valuing one another, we can help everyone in our community thrive.

Respectful communication is at the heart of our school values, and is an expectation from families, students, and school faculty and staff. This is the most important component of our Code of Conduct and when followed, supports an inclusive and supportive school community.

We are committed to resolving difficulties in a constructive manner, through open and respectful dialogue. If a concern arises, please contact your child’s teacher. Where an issue remains unresolved, please follow the school’s grievance procedure available in the school’s Policy Manual.

Please note that we take seriously the following expectations to foster a supportive learning environment:

  • Our community is kind. Threatening, disparaging, or disrespectful language or behavior toward staff, students, and visitors will not be tolerated on school premises or during any school-related activity.
  • Our community is inclusive and respectful. Using insulting or demeaning language as it relates to race, religion, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or ability is unacceptable.
  • Our community is respectful of the spaces we inhabit. Damaging or destroying school property is not allowed.
  • Our community is supportive of the school. Any behavior that disrupts the school’s normal operation or school-related activities will not be tolerated.
  • Our students, families, teachers, and staff are stewards of the school community. Slanderous comments about school staff, students, or another family on social media or in person is unacceptable

Should any of the above occur on school premises, online, or in connection with school events, administrators are authorized to ban offenders from being on school campus or from attending any and all school related activities, and/or to use any legal action necessary in order to ensure the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of Hawbridge students and staff.

Thank you for abiding by this code in our school. Together we will create a welcoming and nurturing environment for our students and their families, employees, visitors, and board.