CLASSROOM PRACTICE: The Battle for Civilized Behaviors: Let's Begin with Manners

Article excerpt

Perceiving a trend toward declining civility in the society at large, Mr. Burns has come up with a simple plan to help his students learn to behave courteously.

AT WHAT POINT do we say our society has reached a crisis in terms of lack of civilized behavior? Some say we are nearing that point or have already reached it. For many adults and children alike, it seems that basic manners, titles of respect, and proper etiquette have become quaint relics of the past.

Few would deny that appropriate behavior should be taught at home and that parents are primarily responsible for much of the social behavior of their children. By the same token, few would deny that the media and the culture at large also exert a strong influence on children's sense of which behaviors are appropriate in which situations. Anyone whose channel-surfing lands on "The Jerry Springer Show" will find it hard to deny that the trend of late has been toward less and less civilized behavior.

I think we must face the fact that a growing number of children simply do not have appropriate manners and social skills or proper respect for adults. We must also acknowledge that we are being negligent as a society if we do not strive to develop more appropriate social behaviors in these children.

Certainly, we cannot expect from our children what they rarely see. And those of us who work in schools must accept that we can no longer be sure what is being taught at home and what needs to be taught at school. Like it or not, the roles of the family and those of the school are merging.

Having worked for the last 181?2 years with students who exhibit problem behaviors, I have seen more and more of them who simply do not know how to behave. Moreover, during the last few years, there have been growing efforts on the part of educators to teach values and character, and there have even been attempts at legislating manners in the schools. For instance, when school began in the fall of 1999 in Louisiana, students in kindergarten through fifth grade were required by law to address teachers as "Ma'am" or "Sir" or to use the appropriate titles of Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. There were attempts in other states (Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, North and South Carolina, and Wisconsin) to legislate the use of titles of respect by students, but so far Louisiana is the only state to pass such a law.

Based on the premise that good manners result in better discipline and thus improve the climate for learning, supporters of the cause say that we need to teach manners in the schools because no one is doing so in the home. In other words, courtesy is a necessary first step in instilling values in children. Supporters feel that teaching courtesy can do no harm and has the potential of increasing the levels of civility, respect, and discipline in our schools.

Some opponents consider the legislated manners approach too militaristic and authoritarian. Others believe manners or morality can't be legislated and that respect must be earned, not mandated. Still others say that the effort represents meddling in areas that are the responsibility of the home or that the solution is a superficial response to much deeper problems facing our society.

How I Began Teaching Manners

I believe the attempts to legislate manners in our schools have run their course, but I continue to believe that civility in our society is declining and that the roles of family and school are merging. Therefore, in an attempt to develop more appropriate social behaviors in my third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students with behavioral problems, I decided I would request (not require, but "strongly request") that they use the terms "Ma'am" and "Sir" when addressing adults. I judged this a better approach to teaching manners than trying to fit another separate lesson into our already hectic days.

My plan was to gradually teach my students what to say and how to act and then to show them how the use of simple social graces can influence the impressions they make on others. …