Are Schools Responsible for Teaching Manners? | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Are Schools Responsible for Teaching Manners?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

"I look at [the tape], and I'm like, 'That is not me.' I have so much regret. I can't believe I did that. I let myself and my character not live up to what I should live up to and what I can live up to."

Quoted in a New York Times story, this rather tortuous out-of-body experience is what passes for an apology by a soccer player for the University of New Mexico who became infamous on television and the Internet for a series of shockingly dirty plays, culminating in her violent takedown of an opponent by viciously yanking on her ponytail.

The Problem

The player -- whom I won't bother to name here -- has been indefinitely suspended from collegiate play. But Ponytailgate is a vividly unpleasant reminder of the degeneration of behavior -- what used to be called comportment -- in our age of aggressive disrespect.

Back in the days when I was being pummeled and pounded in high school football, sportsmanship was part of what our coaches taught us, along with the playbook and the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. The pedagogic method was simplicity itself: Any lack of sportsmanship was immediately singled out and censured. Even in the heat of competition in a sport that ritualizes warfare, a certain level of decorum was expected.

The prohibitions extended not only to dirty playing -- blocks from behind, late hits, elbows to the face, all of which were subject to penalties and instant benching -- but also to any kind of showboating. The old-fashioned virtue of modesty was the rule, in order not to embarrass one's opponents.

My coach was surely not the only athletic mentor to pass along the existential message, "When you get into the end zone, try to act like you've been there before." On the rare occasions when I did get there, the only gesture allowed was the nontriumphant handing of the ball to the referee.

The strutting, posing, chest pounding, and prayer circles so common in football today would not have been tolerated for a nanosecond.

Call the soccer player's behavior, plus her inability to straightforwardly take responsibility and to express believable regret, the tip of the not-so-nice-berg. Incivility is rampant these days, and I will not bother to list the many ill-mannered acts in recent times, whether by individuals or groups. Cable news has feasted on them, after all.

Bad sportsmanship is the least of it. But what one wonders is how a young woman has managed to reach college age without learning how to behave.

The Cause?

A conversation I had recently with a friend who's a veteran elementary school teacher revealed what may be a future factor in the rising tide of unruliness:

"We used to have the time during the first few school years to teach kids how to get along with one another, how to share and how to handle anger," she explained. "A big part of early learning was what you could call the social ABCs. Now, we're having to stress academics much more, so there's little or no time left for molding social behavior."

It might be argued, reasonably, that in this test-or-perish, NCLB era, it's important for teachers to accept the reality that math trumps manners. But I think teachers and parents know that to treat others with respect is not an inborn trait. (Remember Lord of the Flies?)

Young children have to be taught the fine art of civility, in order to discourage what may be a natural inclination to stay savages. And since civility is a language of sorts, it's better learned young. By the time kids are ten or so, I suspect the window of opportunity may be at least three quarters closed.

Naturally, teachers can't be expected to turn the early elementary grades into some sort of finishing school. As my friend pointed out, she and all the thousands of others like her around the country have plenty to do -- and then some. We can hope, therefore, that parents take on the burden of socializing their kids, a burden that was once a given.

But how's that going?

A combination of factors such as a loss of family time caused by hard-working mothers and fathers, the isolation abetted by the Internet, and the determination of parents to be pals with their kids instead of demanding role models seems to be making what used to be part of the solution into part of the problem.

As I've had to admit more than once in my blog posts, I am not, nor have I ever been, a teacher. So I'm sure I'm bringing up a perplexing situation for which there is no easy solution. But if we're not to descend further into a raucous, in-your-face future, what other than our schools can save us?

What are your thoughts and ideas on this issue? We look forward to hearing from you!

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kim's picture

Teaching manners is not in our job description, but it is apart of our job. Many of our students come from homes where parents don't spend valuable time with them, and teach them the neccessities of life. Being a teacher, we are these kids lifelines from home; parents to them at the school.

rich stacey's picture

I am an elementary physical education teacher and I constantly teach manners in my classes. Manners go right along side sportsmanship in my classes. But it does seem like school is the only place where many of the children learn manners. I get a surprised and actually a little excited to hear a student say please or thank you without being asked to do so. I was also raised to be polite and treat others with respect so I did not need school to teach me that. Schools should teach manners but like any other subject it is difficult to do so if it is not being reinforced in the home.

andreka's picture

Many teachers are not given the respect needed. Some teachers are afraid of their students. Students' values are being shaped by TV, movies, music, and negative images. Parents need to take more ownership in monitoring and controlling how students spend their time. Teachers are not held accountable for teaching manners. We are accountable for state standards according to each subject. However, we have a program at our school were we watch for positive behavior. When a student is caught doing something positive, he/she is given a super stomp. On Monday's their name is drawn to have extra recess with a friend at the end of the day for twenty minutes. It's important to me that kids have good manners, are respectful of adults and of their peers, etc. Teachers should hold the same standards in the classroom. Teachers should also help them learn appropriate ways to manage situations when their peers don't treat them with respect.

Bethann's picture

Heather, I agree with you 100%. As teachers, it is our responsibility to model the behaviors that we expect from our students and it is also our responsibility to provide consequences in our classrooms when the desired behaviors are not exhibited. We can't control what goes on in the lives of our students at home or what they are or are not learning. We do have the opportunity to shape their learning environment in our schools. This must be our focus.

Bethann's picture

I agree with Heather 100%. Teachers need to model the behaviors that they expect from their students and have consequences when the desired behaviors are not exhibited. We may not have control over what students are or are not learning at home, but we do have an opportunity in our classrooms,and within our school communities, to teach manners, cooperation and respect.

Olive's picture

Whether it is a school's responsibility to teach good manners or not it has become a teacher's responsibility. Students come to school with very different discipline backgrounds. Some students are being raised with good manners and others do not have a clue what the word manners mean. The reason is that they are not being taught good manners in their homes. Unfortunately as a result of that, teachers have to deal with these students and they are the ones who disrupt the learning process and environment.

Having good manners is just as important as academic knowledge. Students who are academically brilliant, but display disrespectful behaviors and plain bad manners will not perform to their full potential. They become distracted because their behavior is not conducive to the learning environment. I strongly believe that teachers at the beginning of each year should discuss with students the rules in their classroom which should include good manners. Teachers and their students should brainstorm consequences for negative or positive behaviors that are commonly displayed in the classroom. Students need to know and understand why these behaviors are not acceptable. They should learn that school is a learning environment which prepares them for the real world. In addition, if they exhibit good manners at an early age most likely it will stay with them, and then as adults they will be good citizens in their communities and country. Consider a doctor with very poor bedside manners, how many patients would he get? For example, if a doctor displays a disrespectful behavior towards a patient, the result would not be in the doctor's favor. Most likely the patient will not return to this doctor's office. This patient will definitely discuss this doctor's behavior with other patients and that doctor could lose patients, which would result in a decline of revenue. Or a rude customer service employee, how long would he or she keep that job? The negative behavior would be reported to the manager and that employee could lose his or her job. Practicing good manners in the classroom is a valuable life habit that all students should develop. I believe teaching children good manners should be a parent's responsibility, but many parents themselves do not have good manners so in reality it has become the teacher's responsibility.

Brenda Schlagel's picture

I am fortunate also that I had parents that raised us with manners. I see that schools are being held more accountable for students success in all areas of life. Schools are raising children more than ever. Many students do not care if they are passing or not, if they get in trouble or behave in school, or in the fact even go to school. We have cops in our schools that go pick up students from their homes if they are truant. I was so shocked when I saw this, because if parents are not going to make their students go to school, why are we held accountable and the law is involved to make sure they get there. It seems like we are raising certain parents along with their children.

Jim's picture

I believe our job is to teach the standards, period. We are not hired because we know how to teach manners or respect. Obviously we use our manners and respect to help get the job but being able to teach them has no influence at all.

As a human and as a teacher I feel that if I did not help the students with manners or respect then I would be failing myself.

I do not feel that teaching manners is one of our job requirements but it is one of our 'good person' requirements. As a good person and a teacher we are always trying to help others in any way and not having good manners is one thing that bothers us. So I try to teach my students how to have better manners everyday.

Jeffrey Pallino's picture

I teach elementary school health, and when I am in the classroom I feel like I am constantly reminding kids about little things like saying please and thank you. If I have a student come up to me telling me about something another student did to them, trying to get the one student to say "I'm sorry" to the other is like a foreign concept. Teaching our students manners may not be required by law but I think it is something that unwritten and expected of us.

Jeremy Hren's picture

It seems as if the concept of manners in kids is not being installed at home because parents do not have them. That behavior is something that should be modeled by adults. The kids in a lot of communities just don't know that some things are just not socially acceptable. It is also more socially acceptable as kids see the celebrities behaving badly and now it has become cool.
I know that we do not want to have to still be teaching these things in high school, but that is the reality of the situation. I agree that it is part of what we teach the kids to prepare them for the real world and many times we are the only ones that the kids will see correcting that behavior. I have to check myself and make sure that I am modeling that type of behavior to show the kids the right way to do things.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.