Model Good Manners and Common Courtesy
If you demand courtesy from your students, don't you owe them exactly the same thing? Shouldn't a classroom be a place of mutual respect between a teacher and her students? Then be sure to model basic good manners for your students.
One of the most important tenets of good etiquette is addressing people properly and respectfully. If you had lived in the nineteenth century and had a chance to meet President Abraham Lincoln, would you have grabbed his hand and blurted, “Hey there, Abe, how's it shakin'?” Of course not; it wouldn't have been appropriate. Instead, you would have said, “Good morning, Mr. President. I'm very pleased to meet you,” or something to that effect. Then why not practice these same courtesies with students? Why not address them with a similar level of respect? Why not call them “Miss” and “Mr.” along with their surnames?
While students might feel nervous on the first day, this nervousness will quickly disappear if you make them feel safe, welcome, and engaged. Remember, you set the tone for your class.
Some of your fellow teachers will strenuously object to such a formal convention. They'll urge you to call your students by their first names because it's a venerable American tradition. Also, they'll maintain that using first names establishes a warm bond of friendship between you and your young charges. These are strong arguments, and you'll have to balance such reasoning against the advice you'll get from other colleagues, who will warn you against the dangers of over familiarity with your students.
All teachers ought to maintain a certain amount of professional distance from the children who've been entrusted to them. How much distance? That's up to you. Some teachers hug their students every day; other teachers scrupulously avoid any physical contact whatsoever for fear that such behavior might be completely misinterpreted. The latter group of teachers may well advise you that strictly formal working relationships are best, especially for male teachers. These teachers will counsel against using first names and instead will suggest using courteous phrases such as, “Thank you, Miss Smith,” “That's right, Mr. Jones,” and “Would you pass these out, Miss Doe?” when speaking to students.
But of course, good manners involve more than just using courteous forms of address. You should also get in the habit of phrasing your orders as polite requests. The truth is, as a teacher you're a little bit like a military commander, in the sense that you issue direct orders and your students are honor-bound to obey those orders. However, because your subordinates are children and not soldiers, do what smart commanders throughout history have always done — pretend that your orders are requests. Try not to say things such as, “Jennifer, get yourself over here now!” Such barked commands can easily cause Jennifer to lose face among her peers; and at that point, she may feel constrained by her own pride to stubbornly defy you in an effort to regain some dignity.
Remember what the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said about manners: “[T]here is always time enough for courtesy.” Or recall the words of the English author and noblewoman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in one of her famous eighteenth-century letters: “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.”
Instead, try saying, “Miss Lee, would you come up to my desk for a moment, please?” Such camouflaged orders can often produce the desired result. If your polite request is unsuccessful, then you'll need to be a bit firmer. “Miss Lee, I need you to come to my desk for a moment, please.” In the end, direct, undisguised commands sometimes have their place — “Jennifer, get yourself over here now!” — but you may want to use them as a last resort rather than a first resort. After all, it's hard for kids or parents to fault you if you're always elegantly courteous. Use good manners to legitimately gain the respect and cooperation of your students.