Upper School American English teacher Sandra McKay works to make respect reciprocal. She wants students to feel respected, to respect one another, and to respect their teachers and the educational experience.
“Students want to be shown respect,” she said. “They expect teachers to have something prepared and meaningful to present to the class. Students are busy. They have to feel that you are fair, understanding, and compassionate. You see them as having worth and merit. Respect makes them feel valued.”
Connection with students is established on the first day of class in August. When the value of each student is clear on day one, a tone of respect is sure to follow. Respect in the classroom builds feelings of trust and safety.
“Good teachers establish a rapport of goodwill and trustworthiness early in the school year. I’ve always strived to do that,” said McKay. “I can honestly say that in 27 years of teaching at JA, I’ve never had a disrespectful encounter with a student. Students respond to empathy and sincerity, just like all the rest of us.”
Literature such as Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” provides ample opportunities to discuss respect. “Every conflict that arises in literature arises because the characters don’t care for each other, or there’s some kind of misunderstanding, or somebody is being insensitive,” McKay said.
Named Best Teacher for the 2019-2020 school year in the Clarion Ledger Best of Mississippi annual poll, McKay said the award is meaningful and one that shines light on JA.
“There isn’t a teacher who works alongside me in Upper School who doesn’t deserve this recognition–it’s not just me,” she said. “We’re all in this together. Encouraging respect is something JA does very well. The parents, teachers, administration, and students trust each other. It is inherent in our culture.”
Teaching, McKay said, is especially rewarding when a particular lesson or activity resonates with students in a special way. “When I know that they felt inspired or learned something from the literature that they could relate to and maybe even identify with, I feel that the day has been successful,” she said.
In class, McKay strives to educate students about the roots and themes of American literature and to help them improve their writing so they will be prepared in college.
She also stresses she will be a resource even after graduation. “I want them to feel that they can always come back to me for help—and they do,” she said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear from a graduate wanting me to read something or give some sort of guidance.”