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Are Schools Responsible for Teaching Manners?

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"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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Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Though opinions may differ who is responsible, the comments you've all shared here so far prove this to be a topic teachers are passionate about!

Whether seeing manners and social skills as the charge of early education teachers, or that primarily of the parents, readers seem to agree on one thing: These skills are part of whole-child education.

One question for those who feel schools have culpability in the matter of manners: Should social and emotional skills standards be created and taught side by side with our content standards?

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this idea!

elaine frost's picture

I think that manners should be taught in school. As a first grade teacher, I am constantly reminding my students to say please and thank you and to address adults respectfully. So many of my students unfortunately do not learn this at home. I believe that as teachers, it is our job to be positive role models for our students. I believe that good manners should be modeled by teachers and consistently reinforced with our students.

JMahar's picture

I agree with JW. I teach manners all day in a variety of ways to students who rarely get the same message at home. Most of the time the parents I deal with do in fact side with their children regardless of the situation. As a physical education teacher, I have added a sportsmanship component to students daily grade as a way to motivate students to participate appropriately with good language, play fairly, and respect their classmates. Every quarter, when grades come out I have parents calling wondering why their athletic child has a low grade when their child puts others down or takes cheap shots regularly in class. More often than not, the response is not that they will address the situation at home, but that their child is "just competitive." While I absolutely think teachers need to help teach manners at schol, parents also need to start being held accountable so that the cycle changes rather than repeats itself.

Sci Guy Jon's picture
Sci Guy Jon
Boarding School R.A., Informal Science Educator & M. Ed. Student

I am in agreement with what most of you are saying. Teaching manners may not be explicitly stated in our job descriptions per se, however it is an implied duty since we are charged with raising individuals that will be productive citizens. As the individuals that a child spends the majority of his childhood with, we educators are the primary providers of behavior reinforcement. However, we rely on the home and the standards of society to determine which behaviors to encourage or discourage. Nonetheless, I feel the majority of parents forget that they hold the strongest influence over their child's behavior no matter how many hours a day a child is physically in school. Also, the majority of parents seem to lack consistency in regards to applying their influence past the preteen years. It angers me when I witness parents blaming schools for not raising their child to behave. It disgusts me even further when I think of the cycle of neglect that this issue promotes for future generations. In order to be 100% effective, there must be a strong bond between the reinforcement a child receives in and out of school.

As professionals, we all understand the importance of manners. We would not be where we are today if we did not. I feel the importance of manners must be presented to students within this context. They must come to realize that the professional world will not tolerate their disrespect. If they do not practice using manners while they are young, they will develop unconscious habits of being disrespectful. To fill the significant void of complimentary behavior reinforcement outside of school, we must bond together as a school, a district, a community or a profession. It is extremely difficult for an individual educator to effectively reinforce manners. This is especially true in regards to adolescents. Technology is exponentially expanding their means of communicating with one another. If we do not show them that their pop culture slang may be interpreted as disrespect in the professional world, they are destined to continue the cycle of neglect initiated by their parents. It would be ideal if school districts were more cognizant of the importance of character education when implementing policies that stress academic achievement over social development. The reality is that schools and school districts implement policies with the assumption that parents are fulfilling their responsibility for raising their child socially, when this is evidently not the case for the majority of students across the nation. As some of you have mentioned, a lot of the parents simply do not know how to fulfill this responsibility. I feel that more can be done from the school and district levels to not only reach out to these parents, but also hold them accountable. Otherwise, we are allowing for generations of parents to continue passing the buck onto us educators.

Mellisa Robinson's picture

Teaching students to have manners is of utmost importance in school. Sadly, with our 'nowadays' young parents, this has become a tedious task. There are some parents who are outrightly defiant about their child being disciplined by a teacher. This has created much pressure on the teacher.

teacherintheroom's picture

YES! Manners should be taught at school! I have written etiquette into my health curriculum for grade 8. We cover everything from shaking hands to thank you notes to dining etiquette. Students learn the proper behavior is a variety of situations and them practice them daily. The course work includes watching some television programs and commenting on the "manners violations". Students get excited about learning "the right way" to do things and in the last several years, many students have thanked me for giving them the chance to learn this.
I believe the reason our program has worked is because I include the parents in the program as much as possible. Often, parents were not taught "good manners" and therefore cannot pass them on to their children.
Most importantly, the teacher should demonstrate proper etiquette in the classroom at all times. That includes "please" and "thank you", writing thank you notes to students and parents for gifts and gestures and by conducting themselves properly at all times. Especially in the event of high stress situations. Students learn best by the examples of the adults around them. Since they are with teachers more than their own parents, we by default, become the example.
I highly recommend Etiquette for Dummies as a book to review. It includes everything, even cell phone, email and texting etiquette which is essential for the business world.
YES YES YES...manner MUST be taught (and modeled) in the classroom!

Rose Ybanez's picture

I do believe and understand that teachers and parents have a very busy life but the accountability of teaching manners lies in thier hands. Ideally both individuals should work hand in hand but I know that wihtin this day and age that is wishful thinking. Thus who is accountable? It is the teachers resbonsibilty to teach the proper guidelines of the classroom and what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Noone else within the classroom can enforce this guuidleines beside the educator. Plus constant modeling of good behavior should always be used by the educatoar. Thus the teacher is putting her/his best efforts to teach manners within their classroom that can extend into the daily life of those students when they leave the boundaries of the classroom. Hopefully, the teachers behavior and expectations can mold students but this is where parenatl guidance should kick in. In times it might not but the accountablitly within the classroom regarding manners lies in the teachers hands.

Maricela H. Sosa's picture

It seems that in classrooms these days teaching manners is added to the long list of things teachers need to cover. Although it is sometimes assumed that manners should be taught at home, it has become a responsibility of the classroom teacher due to some of our students' home environment being influenced by variables such as: busy parents, absent parents, too much media, just to name a few examples. Children begin learning manners by parents and family modeling them at home. However, a good teacher will also influnce the students by modeling appropriate manners in the classroom. Bottom line is that I feel that whether students come in our classrooms with poor manners, it is our responsibility to influence them in a positive way. Besides students see their teachers almost everyday and reflect their attitudes.

Sebrina's picture

We do teach manners whether we intend to or not. We tell our students to talk politely to adults and other children, how to behave at the lunch table, etc. As teachers we try to model correct behavior everyday to our students. Family life is different from when I was growing up, we all sat down to dinner at the same time, so manners were taught when everyone was included, and my parents taught us how to respond to adults. Students today rarely get to have a "sit down" dinner with the whole family. With single parents many students are constantly moved around, staying with daddy, mama, grandparents, on different days. Manners are lost somewhere in between. I do believe certain manners can and should be taught at school.

ChrisR's picture

Teaching them as we go plus integrating a "one-a-month" approach seems perfect. I found that implementing a daily behavior folder for 6th graders worked well, believe it or not. Most of my kids' parents actually signed them too, and I was pleasantly surprised. Then, I "caught" them using good manners or working well, so they got a ticket and were entered in a drawing weekly for a very simple, but popular, prize. I used bright pencils, cute erasers and even glo sticks.

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