Help! How Do I Get Middle School Students To Respect Me?

My AP said I need to “develop a more commanding presence.” Is this a fair critique?

Illustration of teacher trying to earn middle school students respect

Dear We Are Teachers,

After an observation, my AP told me that I am way too timid and meek with my students, and that this is partly why they walk all over me. He said I needed to “develop a more commanding presence with my body language.” Is this a fair criticism? And if so, how do I do it? 

—My Body is Fluent in “Pushover”

Dear M.B.I.F.I.P.,

You’re right to interrogate a professional directive related to your body. However, if you’re a person without a disability, I think body language can be fair for an administrator to bring up as a tool to consider.

I say it can be fair because body language is not a prerequisite for respect. Certainly, people can command respect using bodies that can’t sit up straight, use or project their voices, or make eye contact comfortably.


To me, confident body language is like Michael’s Secret Stuff in the movie Space Jam. (Shout out to my fellow Millennial educators). It doesn’t actually possess any special powers, but as a placebo, it makes the characters believe they’re skilled, leading them to take on the Monstars with confidence and aplomb.

In the same way, confident body language won’t get you instant respect from your students. But it may make you feel more confident while you’re working to build your teaching skills. Try it out in front of a mirror. You might surprise yourself!

Teachers represent a wide range of personalities. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, there are plenty of other ways you can still develop a classroom presence for your students of someone who will keep things running smoothly and safely (and won’t put up with shenanigans).

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’m in my first year teaching 8th grade at a school where over 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. One of many obstacles our students face is getting enough sleep, for a variety of reasons, some of which are outside of their control. Some of my students have complained to me about another teacher who dumps glitter on sleeping students. These students admit it makes them feel unsafe and uncomfortable to sleep in her class, so I guess the end result is effective. But many of our students have protective hairstyles, so the glitter doesn’t simply wash out and can stay in for weeks. Am I wrong in thinking this is inappropriate? She and I already don’t see eye to eye and don’t have a good relationship. I don’t want to rock the boat, but I also care deeply for my students.

—Don’t Glitter My Kids

Dear D.G.M.K.,

This is a teacher who is way too confident that her students’ families can’t or won’t sue her.

The practice of dumping glitter in sleeping students’ hair is disrespectful, demeaning, and, as you’ve alluded to, disproportionately affects students of color. I’m afraid to think what else is happening in the classroom of a teacher who doesn’t see how this is wildly offensive.

Tell an administrator ASAP. Deliberately humiliating kids is not a mistake that she deserves a chance to self-correct. Plus, your administration needs to start preparing for how to respond—to families, media, and very likely advocacy groups—when word gets out why this teacher is on leave.

Dear We Are Teachers,

I teach at a middle school that used to be largely homogenous but is rapidly becoming more diverse. The moment December 1st hit on the calendar, all pretense of inclusion flew out the door. Morning announcements and spirit week days are full of jingle bells and Christmas sweaters, and our staff is getting grouchy emails about not participating in Secret Santa or the Christmas cookie exchange.

I know most of our staff are Christian (and all the loudest attend the same church), but not all our students celebrate Christmas. I tried reaching out to a member of the admin team to ask that we remember we’re a diverse campus, and she just got defensive. Aside from keeping things neutral in my own classroom, is there anything I can do? 

—The Pagan in Room 6

Dear T.P.I.R.6.,

If we assume best intent of these teachers, I’d venture to guess that they don’t see what they’re doing as religious. Since they’re not organizing a school nativity play or having students sing hymns, they probably see their Christmas sweater spirit day and Secret Santa exchange as fun, totally secular traditions that any student or employee can enjoy.

But your instincts are correct. It doesn’t matter how many teachers or administrators think the Christmas traditions are fun or harmless. It doesn’t even matter what the students think of these traditions. Bottom line: Bringing Christmas celebrations into school is a violation of the Constitution.

I explain all of this in great detail in an article I wrote about school prayer, but to put it simply, the Establishment Clause of the Constitution guarantees us not only the freedom of religion but the freedom from religion.

I wonder what would happen with the teachers who defend Christmas at your school if a Hindu principal took over next year and replaced all the Christmas traditions with activities related to Dharmic Days and Hindu holidays that occur in December and January. Would these same teachers still find these religiously tied Hindu celebrations totally inoffensive and secular, or would they suddenly be deeply uncomfortable that a particular religion was being endorsed by a government institution? Something tells me it’s the latter. Something also tells me a simple “You don’t have to participate” wouldn’t appease them.

You can certainly keep things festive and religiously neutral in your classroom (see the fabulous recommendations in this article). But if you feel up for rocking the boat, share in writing your concern that the school could be reported for violating the separation of church and state as outlined in the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Offer to organize religiously neutral celebrations for next year to keep your school above board.

If they’re dismissive, you can file the complaint yourself with the resources at the end of this article.

Listen, I love all things Christmas. But I have no chill for government institutions that center their own preferences and ignore a whole Constitutional amendment because it’s not as fun as they’d like.

I won’t speak on his behalf, but I have a feeling Jesus won’t be devastated that your school didn’t buy Christmas sweaters made by workers in horrifying conditions to celebrate his birthday.

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Dear We Are Teachers,

My principal and I both got divorced in the last couple of years. We developed a friendship outside of work that, for a while, was wonderfully supportive in a really tough time. Now, I feel like that relationship has veered to be far too personal. She tells me way too much about her dating life, including racy texts she gets sent while at work. The other day, she pulled me into her office to get my take on a teacher at our school that one of her kids—a student here—complained about. Am I being unreasonable, or should she be saying way less?