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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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!

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

Crystal Cleveland's picture

Yes we should be modeling more than just how to write and how to read. We should be modeling how to treat others and how to behave in society. We teach it by modeling it for our students. Also we model it to parents. We show parents how we expect to be treated by how we treat them. We teach way more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Lynn Buck's picture

My youngest child, a fourth grader, is fortunate to attend a public school that teaches manners and focuses on character education in all grades K-6. In this large school of about 800 students, I have noticed that students respond to the knowledge of basis life skills and manners. The school focuses on one life skill per month and teachers discuss the skill with the student, encouraging them to act on this skill. For example, if the life skill for this month was responsibility the teachers might encourage the students to be responsible for their behavior in and out of the classroom, as well as, their school work and homework. Yes, it takes a little time out of the day, but I believe the knowledge gained from these lessons in character education are worth the time and trouble. I also think that since the whole school is working on character education and students are rewarded with little notes when any staff memeber notices them practicing any of the character skills. The students can either take these home or enter them in a weekly drawing for prizes like pencils and folders. My daughter loves these notes so much that she brings them home and has a special place on her bulletin board where she posts the notes.

Nicole's picture

I agree with you Crystal when you said that showing manners is something that we model in school. It should be done on a daily basis and students should know how to behave. I believe they should be taught this at home, but from students I have seen they have better manners than their parents. This leaves teachers to not only model, but teach specific behavior techniques.

Sara's picture

I agree with Crystal and Nicole. Now'a'days most parents are not teaching their children manners. It is very important for teachers to be a good role models for their students. For some of the students, the only positive person in their lives is their teacher. If you are teaching students how to behave and use their manners, then they will turn hopefully become better people in the future. I teach this in my classroom and the other teachers in my school do, too.
I have a few questions myself: I want to know how it got here? Since when did parents start thinking it was okay not to teach things like manners or being a good person? Is it because they don't know any better or is something else in it's place?

Nicole F's picture
Nicole F

I wonder if it is a matter of teaching children the ins and outs of how to be polite and use their manners, or more so, as was mentioned above, about character education? I know many students (especially those who don't use manners) will question why we have to, especially since they aren't being used at home. There have been many instances of please and thank yous being used to exert some type of power, and authority. And apologies are often frivolous... so is it more a matter of respect?

Christopher Nugent's picture

I think that parents (with exceptions) try to teach children politeness and manners prior to pre-school and immersion into the educational systems available to them. One of the earliest lessons of my life was you can go along way with showing up on time and being well manner. And not to wax nostalgic, but I didn't have the avalanche of counter measures to politeness that TV, the internet, sports figures (their coaches Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes leap to mind)that are so pervasive today, despite what my mother thought of comic books.

Unfortunately I also think that with children growing up and experiencing the fallout from prolonged wars and economic hardships, for families and schools, the importance of good manners are one of the first things that fall by the wayside. Survival and winning at all costs are the examples most on display today, inside and out of the classroom.

Joanna Cardona's picture

Everyday a teacher at the school where I work comments on a student's manners, or more like the lack of. On several occassions after meeting their parents we discover that it is very possible they are not learning them from home, but then there are the few exceptions that have very well mannered parents and one has to wonder what is going on with this student.

I think that manners have always been taught in school. I remember teachers correcting student's mannerisms when I was in school. My grandmother said that she had to teach manners to students and she has been a retired teacher for fifteen years! If we don't teach students manners, how do we expect to be able to teach them?

JW's picture

It's not a matter of whether or not to teach manners, we do. We teach them to our students no matter if we realize it or not in how we act ourselves. I guess I was quite fortunate in that my parents taught me how to act in public. My teachers didn't have to teach me manners or how to behave in the classroom. If I acted out in school, the behavior was dealt with and my parents were notified of my transgression. Too often nowadays, when parents are called from the school about a problem with "Johnny" it is the school that gets blame from the parent. I have heard parents say that the schools are there to teach my child everything; how to read, how to add, how to act, etc. Some of these parents refuse, or quite sadly are not able, to assist in their child's education in any way. Schools are being held more and more accountable for student success. When are parents going to be held accountable for how their children act?

Wanda Gonzalez's picture

Working with culturally diverse students, I have to be understanding of the fact that certain behaviors are acceptable in some cultures although they are frowned upon in the "American" culture. For example, I teach my students that they should look at someone in the eyes when they are speaking to them. My Chinese students have been taught at home not to look at adults and to look down as a sign of respect. I do not want to force the children to assimilate into our culture but I do want them to be aware of what is favorable mannerisms in the United States because these interpersonal skills are very important.It is my responsibility to prepare them for the world outside of the classroom so when the time comes they can go out to job market and succeed.

carla's picture

I think character education is crucial in the school system, especially in the early years. A teacher's job is to bring children to the place where they can function sucessfully in a diverse society. A teacher must first model proper behavior by treating the students, fellow teachers, parents, and any others respect. I feel that a some teachers don't feel it necessary to respect their students. They have the idea that children should be seen and not heard. Not all teachers, of course, but there are some out there. We are the ones who have to show children how to do this. Unfortunately, some children aren't taught this at home. How will they ever learn how to respect and get along with others if we don't model it in the classroom. After all, children spend more time with teachers than parents during the school week.

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