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Teaching Manners in a Manner-less World

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With manners in U.S. society at what some consider an all-time low, author and psychologist Dr. Alex J. Packer has written a humorous etiquette guide for teenagers that offers real-life lessons and explains the value of manners. Included: Classroom etiquette commandments for students -- and teachers.

Dr. Alex J. Packer

Convincing teenagers that good manners matter, could, well, take some convincing. To (politely) help with that task, author and psychologist Dr. Alex J. Packer wrote a manual, How Rude! The Teenagers' Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out.

Using humor and exploring real-life scenarios, Dr. Packer explains the value of manners and how they apply in contemporary society, with chapters such as School Rules: Civility in the Land of Tater Tots, covering topics such as classroom decorum and getting along with teachers. He also includes two reproducible lists of 30 commandments for classroom etiquette, one for teachers and one for students.

Besides being an author, Dr. Packer also is the president of FCD Educational Services, Inc., which provides drug education programs to schools and colleges.

Dr. Packer graciously took time to talk with Education World about his book, and why teachers and other adults need to discuss and model good manners.

Education World: What prompted you to write this book?

Dr. Alex Packer: I was inspired to write How Rude!by countless ill-mannered, oblivious, self-centered adults who reminded me on a daily basis that we don't need another generation like that. And on those rare occasions during the writing process when motivation flagged, I just went for a walk so that I could be run over by a skateboarder, elbowed off a sidewalk, or snarled at by a sales clerk.

Up until How Rude! etiquette books for teenagers were, in my opinion, preachy, condescending, and rather removed from the real lives of young people. It almost seemed as if the people writing them didn't like kids! These books told you how to curtsy if you met the Queen, but not how to survive in the lunchroom or the locker room. Since adults had dropped the ball in teaching manners, I decided to write a book for teens that would provide helpful, relevant advice, and be fun, funny, and interesting to read.

EW: How would you assess the current climate in society regarding manners and etiquette?

"School staff members need to be shining examples of the behavior they hope to see in their students," says author Dr. Alex J. Packer.

Dr. Packer: Society is experiencing a manners meltdown. We see this on the macro level, where our own government behaves like the school bully, running roughshod over the rights, privacy, and property of others. We see it in reality television, where humiliation is served up as entertainment. And we see it on a daily basis in our own lives with basic courtesies becoming an extinct species. Nonetheless, I think it's important to recognize that many teens have beautiful manners and are responsible and respectful.

EW: What are some of the best ways to convince teenagers of the value of good manners?

Dr. Packer: Teens need to recognize that the values underlying good manners -- respect, consideration, empathy -- are important in and of themselves. Good manners are the first line of defense against daily irritations, conflict, and even violence. Behaving responsibly, acting with kindness, and caring about others is the moral and ethical high road. While teens should be polite because it's the "right" way to live, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that good manners are good for them!

Good manners are impressive, attractive, and increasingly hard to find. Teens with good manners come out on top. Well-behaved kids stand out in a crowd, and are more likely to get what they want out of life. The polite bird gets the worm, and kids with savoir-faire know how to make others feel good. And people who feel good are more likely to give you a job, agree to your requests, and enjoy your company. Knowing how to act in all kinds of situations breeds confidence, which helps to keep you cool, calm, and collected in the face of stressful events and interactions.

A good example of the beneficial nature of good manners would be writing thank you notes. One reason teens have such a hard time doing this is because they start out with the wrong attitude. They think of it as a chore rather than an opportunity. Enthusiastic words of appreciation not only convey proper gratitude, but increase the likelihood that the person who gave you this present will give you another one!

EW: How can teachers use this book in their classrooms?

Dr. Packer: The ways in which How Rude! can be used in the classroom are virtually limitless. Since the book is encyclopedic in its coverage of situations young people are likely to encounter, it can serve as a primary reference source for teachers and students. To name just a few ways the book can be used:

  • If manners transgressions occur, students can use the book to identify better, more polite ways to deal with similar situations in the future.
  • Preparations for field trips can include consulting How Rude! to brush up on proper behavior at concerts or museums, or on public transportation.
  • Students and teachers can create etiquette posters for their classroom based on How Rude! that represent the type of atmosphere and relationships they wish to have.
  • Based on the material in How Rude! individual students or groups of students can present "lessons" on different aspects of good manners. These might include skits, role-plays, etc.
  • Students can create their own manners quizzes similar to those in the book.
  • Students can explore the history of manners, and write papers or present talks on how manners have evolved over time.
  • Teachers can use the book as an etiquette curriculum, creating their own lesson plans based on those topics in the book they feel are most relevant to their students.

    EW: What would you say are the five most important etiquette rules for students?

    Dr. Packer: The number one rule, of course, is: Never cause the chalk to squeak. Beyond that, I surveyed hundreds of students and teachers while writing How Rude! Here are the top seven answers when I asked teachers, "What manners-related behaviors most impress you in students?"

    1. Saying "Please" and "Thank you."
    2. Thoughtful listening and questioning.
    3. Asking for help in a polite manner.
    4. Showing kindness and understanding toward their peers and adults.
    5. Free yet thoughtful expression of their views.
    6. Saying they're sorry and meaning it.
    7. Thanking me for teaching them or helping them understand.

    Another area where some teens lack good manners is in the way they treat their peers. They say things that are hurtful and unkind. They bully, tease, and exclude. They make cutting comments about people's looks, speech, clothing, race, ethnicity, and/or sexuality.

    Adults are doing a fine job turning the world into a divisive, intolerant, hypocritical, violent mess. You'd think teens would want to do their utmost to create an opposite climate for themselves. The golden rule for students should be to respect the rights, property, opinions, feelings, ethnicity, intelligence, achievements, and personal tastes and styles of others. In other words, thou shalt not bully, harass, speak hurtfully, cop an attitude, backbite, spread rumors, or put people down because of their looks, abilities, family, background, and/or sexual orientation.

    EW:How about etiquette rules for teachers?

    Dr. Packer: In terms of important etiquette for teachers, students hate it when teachers make fun of them in front of the class, use sarcasm, talk down to them, punish the whole class for something one person did, play favorites, and/or not listen to their side of the story. Therefore, the five most important etiquette rules for teachers would be:

    1. Treat all students with patience and respect.
    2. Avoid sarcasm.
    3. Expect the best, not the worst, from students.
    4. Encourage students to ask questions when they don't understand.
    5. Reward responsibility with extra privileges.
      To this, I'm sure students would add:
    • Allow us to go to the bathroom.
    • Make corny jokes at your own risk.
    • Use breath mints.

    EW: What are some ways school staff members, at all grade levels, can encourage good manners?

    Dr. Packer: Model, model, model. Kids learn from watching the behavior of others, and if that behavior is rude, mean, unfair, arbitrary and/or selfish, that's what they'll learn. Given the rampant rudeness in the world today, it's no wonder many teens are discourteous and disrespectful. Therefore, school staff members need to be shining examples of the behavior they hope to see in their students.

    Schools with positive climates, with a commitment to shared values, tend to be safer, happier places for students. Staff should treat all students as individuals, greeting and recognizing them whenever possible. Discipline should be based on rewarding responsibility, rather than punishing misbehavior. Staff and teachers should be prepared to stop whatever they are doing to deal with incidents of unkindness, intolerance, and/or bullying. Time spent doing this will not take away from learning; it will enhance it, since kids learn best in safe, respectful environments.

    This e-interview with Dr. Alex J. Packer is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

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