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I was twenty-three years old, naïve, and ready for my first full-time teaching position. I had just spent twelve weeks in a long-term substitute position for a fifth-grade classroom. It was the end of Spring, and I knew that I might be called in for interviews for the upcoming school year.  I had been a substitute teacher for a year and I was ready for my own classroom.

I decided it might be beneficial to get advice from the principal at the school where I did my long-term substitute position. I scheduled to meet with him after school. I let him know that I was looking for a full-time job and if he could give me some advice about interviewing and what I should expect. I don’t remember him giving me any helpful information. He said a few things, laughed a little and said, “Really, all you need to know is just look pretty.”

Yup, that was it, folks. My four years of college and all my efforts to become a credited teacher were summed up in three words- Just.Look.Pretty.

I remember turning a bit red and embarrassed at his response. I chatted a bit more but I realized he had no advice for me and THAT was his answer.

Now the present-day-forty-something-me would have probably got in my car and drove to the School Board office to kindly let them know Mr. Principal was a misogynist pig— or something to that effect. But my twenty-three-year-old-self lacked self-confidence and boldness. I didn’t know how to respond.  I just wanted a teaching position.

After that, I knew that I didn’t want to work in that school. Mr. Principal’s comments made me uncomfortable, but I really couldn’t pinpoint why. They weren’t harmful, but they were disrespectful. I started to think about all the teachers in that school, and I noticed there was a common theme. Most of them were thin, pretty, and all female.  In fact, I remember the interactions many of those female teachers had with Mr. Principal. They flirted and they stroked his ego. It was an environment that I often felt uncomfortable and out of place in. It was like High School all over again. I wasn’t going to be making out with any football players, so I wasn’t a part of the popular crowd (or some other High School cliche situation).

I tell this whole scenario to say this; we are all responsible for creating an atmosphere of respect. In a society where sexual harassment in the workplace seems to be a disease, let’s acknowledge that sometimes it starts with women to set the standard. Mr. Principal was a jerk. No question about that. But I watched many other female teachers laugh at his crassness and flirt in the most inappropriate way. They helped to create a climate where he was very comfortable in being unprofessional.  Now I don’t know if anything was going on besides flirtation and ignorant behavior, but it was enough to make me feel devalued in my role there as a teacher. I have often wondered, would he have made those comments if the other teachers held him to a higher standard?

I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. Respect begins with me.

Looking back, I wish I would have been able to respond to Mr. Principal and put him in his place. He needed a lecture on respect for women, especially young women.  But I don’t put this story in the context of men verse women or equality. It’s simply about treating everyone with respect.  We (men and women) all have the choice to set our standards high in the workplace. We can enable a disrespectful atmosphere just as much as we can directly show disrespect. Our actions or failure to act have consequences. We can complain and point fingers, or we can set the standard for how we ALL want to be treated.

Now my story did have a happy ending. I taught in another school with an admirable male principal who helped me become a better teacher. He valued me as a young teacher, and I respected him for his leadership and experience. It’s amazing what can happen when respect begets respect.