Defining Respect in the Classroom

Why do we need to define respect?

A key way to create an inclusive classroom is to establish a set of community norms (Tanner 2017). This can take the form of a syllabus statement or a spoken assertion made on the first day of class and repeated throughout the semester. Often, the language “Treat other students and the instructor with respect” appears in this context.

Unsurprisingly, students and instructors may enter the classroom with different understandings of respectful behavior. Simply calling for “respect” leaves expectations vague, and may not prove sturdy enough for students and instructors to fall back upon during heated moments later in the semester. Defining respect at the beginning of the semester in terms of specific classroom behaviors can help ensure a shared understanding of expectations and provide a point of reference for managing conflict when it does arise (Ambrose et al. 2010; Bain 2004).

NEW RESOURCE: A collaboration between the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Drake Institute, this respectful dialoge toolkit defines respectful dialogue, identifies goals for faculty, staff, and students, provides strategies, and shares additional resources and supports.

Sample definitions of respect

Here is a “menu” of possible classroom behaviors that you can use to define respect for your students. Not all will apply to every class; choose, add, or refine the elements that contribute to the learning environment you are trying to create.

  • Use “I” statements about your own experience rather than sharing generalizations about groups.
  • Critique ideas, not people.
  • Honor the diversity that exists between and within groups of people.
  • Use evidence to support your assertions. In this class, acceptable evidence includes […].
  • Maintain a problem-solving orientation so that when problems arise, we assume we can work together to solve them.
  • Listen carefully – When someone has the floor, give them the time and space they need to express themselves.Respectful participation means:
  • Don't talk too much – try to recognize when your opinion is dominating the room and preventing you from listening to others. Share airtime.
  • Don't talk too little – your perspective enriches us all. When you don’t participate, you rob your peers from hearing your side and rob yourself of feedback you might get from others.
  • Beyond Talking – I will provide multiple ways to participate in addition to verbal discussions.

Please engage with in-class activities with an open mind – this course uses multiple types of activities across the semester including group work, discussions and interactive lecture. When the day’s activity is not your preferred way to engage, know that for others in the room, this is their favorite way to learn and you will have other days where your preferences are prioritized.

The importance of follow-through

Once you have formulated a definition of respect for your classroom, include it in your syllabus and/or discuss it with your students during the first few class sessions. Then, be sure to remind students of these community norms frequently throughout the semester, and especially before a difficult discussion.

If a student acts in a disrespectful way, call it out and remind the class of the expectations you set at the beginning of the term. If another student has been attacked or made uncomfortable, publicly reassure that student and emphasize the value of their contributions to class. Students will observe whether you enforce the norms, and this will shape their subsequent behavior. (For more, see How to Deal with Hurtful Speech in the Moment)


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M. & Lovett, M.C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Bain, Ken. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Tanner, Kimberly D. (2013). “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity.” CBE – Life Sciences Education, 12(3), 322-331.