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Are Schools Responsible for Teaching Manners?

"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!

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S. Barber's picture

I must say that teaching manners in school is essential. Some households lack this discipline. Although I do believe that these particular lessons should be taught at home first, sometimes this is not necessarily the case. Owen, you were correct when you mentioned how schools are more focused on academics. As long as we score well on standardized tests, other things do not seem to matter as much. I had a second grade student who talked back and wondered why he was scolded for it. He hit other students and lied about ever doing so. When his mom was confronted with the matter, she just told me she would talk to him. Did I fail to mention that he received really good marks on his report card? Well, shortly after the discussion I held with his mom, she decided it would be a great idea to give him a pizza party. It was almost as if his terrible behavior was ignored in light of his good grades. So I say, as a teacher, we must be more than just teachers. We are nurses, debaters, moms, big sisters, caretakers, babysitters, and everything else that falls down that line. Though it is our job to discipline, it could be better implemented if it started at home first. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So we become the disciplinarians as well. A teacher's job is truly never done.

Mandi's picture

Some days it seems as society as a whole has lost the concept of manners, from people in the grocery store to characters on television. No wonder bad manners is a more prevalent problem with children. Our school parking lot has been known as a stressful situation with little manners being displayed. A mother dropped her child off with a good buy wave and seconds later was honking and speeding around another car parked a little to much in her way. I feel it is our duty as teacher to model good manners, teach character traits, and redirect children as needed. If we truly feel that we are leaving an imprint in history, it is definitely our duty.

Allison's picture

I agree with Lynn! I teach at a school that teaches manners and character education. We have the "PAWSome Attitudes" board. Students caught doing nice gestures towards others, get their picture taken and the picture is placed on a bulletin board wtih a description of their good deed. The students have really taken into consideration their manners and attitudes so they can "get caught being good". Our children need to be taught manners, respect, forgiveness, and kindness. Our children deserve to be given every opportunity to become the best citizens they can and teachers and parents need to take the time to teach these important attitudes.

Martha Elliot-Sansavior's picture

I believe it is the parents duty to teach their children manners. After all they are the first teachers to the child. The teacher therefore would reinforce what have been learnt at home. Of course with the shift in society, we now need to teach the students not only manners but how to pray.

Martha Elliot-Sansavior's picture

I agree with with this comment. It is very hard for a teacher to reinforce manners when the parents have their own ideas on bringing up their children. We would teach them "If someone hits you, tell the teacher or principal". There are parents who tell their children "Don't take anyone's lash." At times parents use improper language to describe the teacher therefore the child would have no respect for the teacher.

Toni's picture

Unfortuately, I hear the same things in my community. Many parents believe their job ends when their children are dropped of at school. I find that many of my students do not have a good base of, what I consider, necessary manners. Simple every day things, like saying good morning back to someone who greets you, is lost on this generation. I try to model good manners with my students constantly and use everyday occurances to reinforce this skill. I hope that these skills are also reinforced at home.

Suzette Garcia's picture

yes, there are many schools and teachers who still teach their students manners but we as teacher still need to understand that there are still many children who don't hear a thank you, excuse me or even a positive greeting such as, how was school today? Therefore, I agree with Crystal Cleveland when she said "We teach it by modeling it for our students" and I strongly agree with her when she said "We show parents how we expect to be treated by how we treat them." In by doing this, we can hope that in return our parents and our students are learning good manners. Remember we as teachers spend lots of time with our students.

Stephanie Sanchez's picture

I completely agree. Students today are not coming into the classroom with manners at all. My students just expect me to give them things without saying please or thank you. I teach them manners all day long. My students look at me like I am crazy when I expect them to say those polite words. It is sad that manners has become a dying art.

Sadie's picture

I agree that teachers are responsible for teaching manners when it is apparent that they are not being taught in the home.The phrase "It takes a whole village to raise a child" I believe goes far beyond just teaching the curriculum. As a parent, it is like second nature to me, to correct my students when they are not using their proper manners. I hold my students to the same standards I hold my own children to where manners are concerned. I also believe that if you do not teach your students manners in the classroom, it will disrupt your classroom management, classroom behaviors, teaching styles and teaching strategies.

I believe, and this is just my opinion, that teachers who feel that it is not their responsibility to teach their students manners is not truly an advocate for children and their total success in life. These teachers also do not embrace the "Whole Child Education" concept. We must get back to educating the whole child and not just their intellect.

Amy Stipano's picture

As teachers, we are role models for our students whether we like it or not. Therefore, it is our duty to act and model in the classroom with good character traits in mind. I taught in a school with a character education program similar to the one Lynn described. It was easy for teachers to carry out and clearly the benefits for students are great. That being said, I do not believe it is the sole responsibility of teachers to teach manners and character. It should be a partnership between schools, families, coaches, and any other group of people that has a large influence over that child. Only when manners and character are reinforced in all areas of a child's life will the lessons really start to stick.

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