Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently one of the teachers in my school was telling one her students off for something he'd done, but instead of giving the pupil a tongue-lashing she tried to get the young'un to understand how his behaviour was at odds with the school ethos. At the same time she attempted to explain to him - with mixed success - what was expected of him in and outside the classroom. Some of the words she used were: manners, tact and communication. One of the reasons why I eavesdropped on her conversation with the student was because, although I'm not part of the class-based staff, I do interact with pupils on a regular basis. I was very impressed with the way she dealt with the situation and by the end I was convinced that the student would have second thoughts before lashing out again.

As someone who grew up at a time when it was still OK to give a pupil a clip round his ear, this new, alternative approach still catches me by surprise. I've probably learnt more about the art of good teaching (including how to address disruptive behaviour) in my two and a half years as a community manager at the school I'm based than I did in my five years at uni and my two years as a language teacher after. At the centre of this process is a philosophical and pedagogical personal U-turn that I think was long overdue. Harsh punishment seldom works in the long term, whereas nurturing civility in children does.

I don't know if you've ever been in the company of someone whose views sit at odds with yours. Someone whose opinions on issues that are dear to you border on the extreme. Maybe you and your companion are at a dinner party, the two of you enjoying the hospitality of a mutual friend. What to do? You can retire to another part of the house, or you can challenge this person's point of view politely. How about if you work closely with someone who represents almost everything you hate? Do you try to reach for a compromise, or do you reject the person flat-out, thus risking the team's stability?

Whatever course of action you decide to take, I'm sure that civility and the message it usually conveys will be a useful tool with which to address your quandary.

I used to believe in the school of hard knocks. My philosophy was that the way to sort out a disagreement was by beating your opponent (verbally) into submission. An unfinished argument was enough to keep me awake at night. My old self still, occasionally, rears his ugly head in the wake of rows and contemplates scenarios that would mirror Dante's version of hell.

Civility, unfortunately, is very often mistaken for cowardice. Any attempt to reach a middle ground is derisively dismissed. And yet, civility is so much needed. The teacher I mentioned at the beginning of my post did not make any judgement on whether the student was right or wrong to be aggrieved. She was more interested in the manner in which the pupil was trying to solve the problem. I applauded her approach because in the long term that child will realise that you win more through polite negotiation and tactful compromise than through all-out aggression.

It's a lesson that, sadly, has not been fully learned in today's world. We still value chest-beating rudeness over good manners sometimes. However, is it a good idea? If, as a result of constant squabbling, people lose their jobs, or don't get the healthcare they need, who is the ass? And who is the dumb pachyderm?

There's another benefit in spousing civility as a powerful ally when confronting difficult issues. It puts the onus on the other person. You say to your opponent, these are my views, which are completely different from yours. But, hey, I'm willing to meet you halfway, as long as we retain the respect we both deserve. Do you not think that people will be willing to engage with you?

Of course, sometimes we have to resort to other methods, like force, for instance, to solve problems. Good manners will simply not do. Tyrants very often laugh off any polite attempts to discuss their rule. Politicians preach civility whilst throwing mud at their foes with the hope that some of it will stick. Disagreements between atheists and religious believers have frequently descended into mere cat-calling with neither party willing to reason with the other. When faced with the above scenarios, harsh measures must fill up the gap usually allocated to civility.

Luckily, though, not everything is lost, although solutions tend to be found at a domestic level rather than in the grand, international arena. For example, in my house my children must abide by a points system, pioneered by my wife, which awards merits to those who comply with the chores they're meant to complete. Within this structure there are minus points, too, and sometimes they are given to those who don't treat other family members respectfully. And that goes for adults, too. Does it work? Yes, it does, most of the time. Yet, I've seen first-hand how easy it is to fall into the habit of name-calling and constant bickering and how difficult it is to get back on track and be nice to your brother/sister/partner again. Civility is a precious commodity whose benefits are manifold and as long as we have teachers, like my colleague, embedding it in our pupils' principles, the future can only bode well.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Living in a Bilingual World’, to be published on Wednesday 16th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Good morning my friend. It's been a long time.

    One important thing I've learned about teaching and dealing with disgruntled students: I let them have their say because the greater punishment comes from their peers not from those in authority. Rarely are teachers privy to what students are saying behind the scenes. But what I have gathered over the years is that they do moderate each other's behavior. They let their peers know when they have crossed the line.

  2. Good morning (almost afternoon!), Sir. Yes, a long time indeed and I will be making my way to your always fascinating blog in a short while.

    You just brought up one of those traits rarely highlighted in children and teenagers. There's a natural instinct to moderate their behaviour in certain situation. But, I do think that you have to nurture it as the adult. I have seen students at my school flipping out one moment and behaving courteously the best. I believe that civility is innate in human beings, but it's one of those elements, like solidarity and collectiveness, for instance, that you can lose in an instant if not wellt aken care of. Although I was brought up to respect my elders and treat others with respect and consideration, I'm sorry to say that I was a bit of a loose bullet by the time I hit my mid-teens, though very often my tirades were of the verbal type and not the physical one. In fact, my dad once told me (and he probably wasn't joking) that I would make a good lawyer. But with time (and children, in my case) you learn to moderate your behaviour. Is civility linked to empathy? I think it is. Maybe even related to what we think it's fair? That opens another can of worms. I sometimes think that unfair treatement (for instance torture in Guatanamo) doesn't deserve a civilised response. Donald Rumsfeld is on a book tour at the moment. I strongly believe he should be denied the opportunity to make money out of what was in the end a total shambles in US foreign policy. Same with Blair and Campbell. And if we have to dispose of civility to achieve this, well, so be it. Civilised behaviour is the last thing on my mind when I think of those innocent people in Iraq and I see the author of the 'unknown knowns' conundrum smiling like the Cheshire cat on telly.

    Anyway, back to you, dear bloggers and readers. The forum is open.

    Greetings from London.

  3. One aspect that always strikes me is that in the long history of humankind, we tend to equate power and strength with winning.

    That inherent need to be physically superior (survival of the fittest, put another way, survival of the winner) may have bred into human consciousness those two phrases "the winner takes it all" and "might is right".

    Somehow, winning seems to have become the most important thing; perhaps that drive has its roots in the need of our ancestors to survive in a harsh and dangerous world of scarce resources.

    However, as physical survival for some in the more developed parts of the world becomes less of an issue in today's technologically advanced age, there still appears to be this drive to win over others.

    Sadly, "honour" (and all that goes with it such as, integrity, civility and respect for one's opponent) appears to have become lost the more the real need for physical survival diminishes.

    And what has not yet been recognised is that gentleness and kindness require the greatest strength of all: self-mastery. When one has the ability to utterly defeat one's opponent, either verbally or physially, the capacity to reign in one's power requires a greater strength than unleashing anger and violence and the need to win at all costs.

    Without that capacity to reign in our darker selves and replace it with kindness and civility, we are no more civilised now than the "civilised" Roman spectators were when they called for the death of the defeated gladitors

    Perhaps civility will return when we as a society start placing more importance on kindness and love, than we do on winning at all costs.

    And I'll get off my soapbox now! :)
    Judy (South Africa)

  4. Judy, I was enjoying your 'soapbox moment'. Honest.

    There was one key word in what you said that struck a chord in me: self-mastery. We're all capable of lashing out, I know that from experience, whether it be me or someone else. It's more difficult to rein that anger in, to withhold that vituperative comment.

    Thanks for your comment. Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  5. One must always try to be mindful and courteous even though it's difficult. I am thinking about my younger brother, the "prince" of our family, who has become an angry right wing bigot in his middle age. I always wonder why? because he never got scolded but then, he was never shown by example how to be gentle or courteous. I know that anger is a problem in our family and I struggle to contain mine in positive ways. The student you mentioned is really lucky to have such a sympathetic and intelligent teacher. Too bad that mad is more often the model for behavior, instead of mindful.

  6. very interesting comments - issues I have been working out for 30 years - the best way to get the very best out of all your students. Greetings from Mexico...

  7. I love this post -- the notion of civility is such a strong and interesting one -- and so difficult to maintain. I think of the Buddhist precepts for right words, right actions and right thoughts. I wonder whether anger EVER has a place but then wonder if I didn't "wield" it, would certain things happen (particularly with institutions in regards to my daughter and her disability). Surely, though our children must be "taught" civility and it sometimes seems like a lost thing. There was an interesting article (albeit, heartbreaking) about the culture of politeness in Japan and how it's manifested in the current tragedy --

  8. My father used the gentle, wise, and humble method of persuasion while retaining the full measure of his personal power. That power was displayed both in his moving sermons and in the results of his personal interactions. In my younger days, I was quite hot-headed and could not understand that approach. With time, I hope I have acquired his wisdom and that of the teacher you describe in your story. It is a more comfortable place to be.

  9. I wish the politicians in my country would read this. Civility has been lost in politics in the US. Obama is always civil in debate and action, but this, as you point out, can be interpreted as weakness. That's sad.

  10. Hello, Cuban:

    Lately there has been so much harsh talk--I take two steps out on to the street and hear tough trash talk. Though once I was all for communication and connecting, I understand the value of silence.

    Be well.

  11. Fine post! I don’t believe that physical punishment ever teaches a lesson. I think with kids, especially teens, it’s best to speak to them with the respect that you would give an adult. Much of the acting out comes from being treated as inferior and powerless against authority.

    I loved The Delgados – first I’ve heard of them – thanks for the intro!

  12. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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