Teaching Civility Helps Students Look Beyond the Importance of Good Manners

In one of my earlier (and most popular) posts, I explored the ongoing importance of good manners in the classroom. Today I’ll explain why it’s a good idea to take a step beyond manners and develop a sense of civility in your students.

Teaching children to treat each other properly is not merely a way for adults to dictate their behavior. It’s also a means to set expectations for how teaching and learning will take place. Nurturing civility helps make that happen.

What civility means

Teaching children civility helps them realize the importance of the people around them.Practicing good manners relates to a student’s personal behavior. Saying “please’ and “thank you,” letting others go first and sharing when necessary are all examples of proper actions at the personal level.

Civility comes to life when we think beyond the personal and push outward to others. A few examples:

  • Expecting students to show respect for others in the classroom and beyond.
  • Being willing to listen to others as they share their views.
  • Being considerate and practicing restraint when criticizing the beliefs and choices of other people.

Many people think civility applies only to behavior, but the word itself points to a larger meaning. Looking beyond your classroom, civility is important to teach as it speaks to the idea that we all belong to something larger than ourselves.

Instead of merely focusing on the idea of a child controlling their behavior to please their teachers, instead help the students see themselves as part of a greater good.

Get a good eye-roll

Helping to establish that understanding will lead to some good healthy eye-rolls from your students. Children, in their benignly narcissistic way, always begin with themselves in mind, and are loath to think of anything else.

It’s not their fault, as developmentally they aren’t ready to look beyond themselves on a large scale. Setting the groundwork for the importance of civility will show benefits only in the later years for many students. It’s OK to acknowledge this belief by your students, but encourage them to keep an open mind.

The power of example

Children may not always listen to their teachers, but they will always see, and eventually follow, their example. Practicing civil behavior — being considerate of others in the school community, inviting the sharing of differing opinions and disagreeing with those opinions appropriately — is a great way to encourage your students to follow your example.

When appropriate, use good (or bad) choices as exemplar stories for your students to discuss and analyze.

Point to scenarios

It takes about five minutes of watching cable TV to find an example of a guest and several hosts being uncivil to each other. A video of people yelling back and forth, shouting each other down and mocking the beliefs of others will provide concrete lessons in how not to act.

Along with this visual example, you can also have your students review and discuss situations that pop up from time to time. Sharing seats in the cafeteria, avoiding plagiarism on essays, not cheating on tests and sharing homework assignments (without teacher permission) can all be discussed in your classroom. Positive examples include when students participate in school government, give thought to others and strive to set a good example.

We belong to each other

The broader concept that drives this discussion of civility is the idea that our students need to be exposed to the belief that we all have an obligation to larger society. Being civil to each other helps not only the individual, but also all members of your classroom, school and ultimately your students’ fellow citizens.

We live in a society that increasingly looks for way to drive us apart, and teaching civility is one way to turn that tide.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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