At the end of a two-year slog with yet another seemingly thankless GCSE group, there’s no better feeling than reaching into your pigeon hole and finding a handwritten letter of thanks from a pupil. It makes all of the hard work seem worth it.
Moments like these can be few and far between. But what if writing thank-you letters to teachers were the norm? What if schools actively encouraged the practice on the grounds that thanking teachers is simply good manners?
When this suggestion recently appeared on my Twitter feed, I was surprised by the flurry of responses it provoked. Some people took issue with the idea of enforced gratitude, while others argued that educating students about manners is a teacher’s responsibility.
For me, the discussion raised a couple of interesting questions: should school leaders be insisting that we explicitly educate pupils about etiquette? And if so, what might a school policy built around promoting good manners look like?
In answer to that first question, I think that to allow students to graduate into the adult world without these vital “soft” skills is to neglect our duty. We all know a rude student who sulks their way through school and a cheeky charmer who disarms with an apology and a smile. Who is more likely to succeed in future? Bad manners can hold you back, as well as being offensive to others. We shouldn’t let students fail because they never learned to say “thank you”.
On a school level, meanwhile, good manners will support the level of behaviour that we know is needed for effective learning.
Admittedly, schools are already facing huge demands, but I don’t think that embedding a culture of manners has to be an onerous task – and the benefits for our students will make the effort worthwhile.
So, here are some ways to go about it.
1. Include manners in your school ethos
Whether you have a school motto, crest or song, find a way to incorporate manners into it as part of your core values. Some may find it cheesy, but a tagline or a statement that advocates showing respect to others can work wonders as something for students to live up to. Leaders can encourage teachers to look for opportunities to model the values of the school motto in small, visible ways – through holding doors open for each other or offering to help one another carry things. It can be powerful for students to observe such interactions between teachers.
2. Make manners routine
The best way of teaching good manners is for teachers to model them. Of course, the vast majority will be doing this anyway, but it doesn’t hurt for leaders to embed manners explicitly in everyday school practices as well.
For example, you might have a universal expectation that teachers greet students at the door at the start of each lesson, wishing them “good morning” or “good afternoon”, and then thank them for their work at the end.
Behaviour policies should also promote the use of polite and positive language, regardless of the situation. For example, teachers could say something like “walking in the corridors, please”, rather than “don’t run!”; or “excuse me”, rather than “move!” if students are blocking the way.
3. Use the curriculum to your advantage
There are plenty of chances for teachers to support a whole-school focus on good manners through curriculum teaching, from exploring different cultures in geography to learning about how social conventions have changed over time in history.
In a subject like English, you could easily set a “writing to argue” piece discussing the statement “young people are ruder than ever” or run a debate around the question “are manners obsolete?” Linking these activities to current affairs will further cement student understanding and help them to see the relevance of manners in the wider world.
Explicitly teaching about digital citizenship should certainly be part of this approach. Assisting students in understanding the value of observing online etiquette is just as important as teaching them to use manners in the physical world.
4. Create specific opportunities to value manners
If fitting discussion around etiquette into the curriculum feels tricky, leaders can create whole-school opportunities that will allow students to recognise the importance of good manners.
Focusing on showing appreciation to others can work well here. For example, you could organise a “thank you” week in which cards are exchanged. Senior leadership can participate by publicly demonstrating giving thanks to colleagues.
One of the things that actually attracted me to my current school was the “thank-you tree” in the staffroom. Staff can add Post-it note “leaves” to the tree containing messages of thanks. Each week, a selection of these are read out and one recipient is selected for a treat – some chocolates or a bottle of wine.
Initiatives such as this can be great for staff morale, but also contribute to a culture of manners that will filter down to students. And we owe it to them to exemplify how to treat others, not just as a service to society, but because they will ultimately need those “pleases” and “thank yous” to get ahead.
Stephanie Keenan is curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London. She blogs at mskeenanlearns.wordpress.com and tweets @stephanootis