Heidi Schneider


It Takes Two to Struggle:

Teachers, Students, and the Co-production of (Dis)respect in an Urban School

      My doctoral research explores how educational inequality is reproduced by the intersection of identity, face-to-face interaction and the politics of contested meaning. The central contention of my dissertation is that the concept of respect holds theoretical and social significance as it is co-produced within the school setting. Using ethnographic field methods, I examine how a disrespectful classroom culture is initiated by societal forces such as racism, classism, anti-immigrant beliefs, community narrative, and neighborhood context, but more importantly co-produced by teachers and students inside the classroom.

      To uncover the dynamic role (dis)respect plays in schooling, I draw from theories of symbolic interactionism to examine teachers’ and students’ divergent interpretations and meanings of (dis)respect. In doing so, I offer a theoretically grounded and evidence-based argument of how meanings and practices associated with (dis)respect matter to student engagement and teacher-student relationships. As defined in this study, student-teacher conflict does not arise from students’ oppositional attitude to education or authority, or stem from a warped sense of respect, but occurs as a reaction to feeling disrespected by their teachers. In response, students use a “reprisal process” as a strategy to protect their identities and retain the respect of their peers, which many teachers interpret and label as disrespectful.

      Data suggests the vast majority of students do respect and accept the authority of teachers and desire, even crave respect from their teachers, however, teachers’ ideas of (dis)respect are also mediated by their identities and a belief that respect is asymmetrical. In turn, the struggle for respect ensues leaving teachers and students feeling equally wounded, unrecognized, and suffering from the politics of contested meanings of (dis)respect. Together, this influences a disrespectful school culture that contributes directly to failure for some students and indirectly to a sense of alienation for all students. Just as teachers and educators are quick to take credit for producing a successful student culture, they also share a responsibility in manufacturing a disrespectful one.

      Consequently, the dynamic role (dis)respect plays in the education system should be of extreme importance to educators and scholars as the struggle for respect can either make or break the valuable student-teacher relationship, thereby impacting students’ future success. Thus, my dissertation serves as a map of the misunderstandings and consequences of the contested meanings of (dis)respect and serves as a guide to creating an inclusive school culture in which teachers and students equally feel welcomed, recognized and respected. 

Areas of specialization: sociology of education, social inequalities, race and ethnicity, social problems, Latino/a communities, immigrant assimilation