We should ask God
To help us toward manners. Inner gifts
Do not find their way
To creatures without respect.
The pursuit of learning is a noble act. To learn and to teach are among the most fundamental of human activities. Who has not known the impulse to learn and the wish to inspire?
Let us remember that we make an unspoken contract every time we step into the classroom. We assume the timeless roles of teacher and learner, with all of the powerful hopes and expectations that govern these roles. We enter into a relationship whose purpose is, as Yeats described it, “the lighting of a fire.” Nothing less than this is what takes place in the classroom. When approached with the proper spirit, this work elevates and inspires all who participate in it.
And yet, how often do we experience the classrooms of our campuses as dull, fatiguing, and discouraging, sodden with the unfulfilled hopes of both teachers and students? Very often. The classroom is meant to be an arena of inspiration, creativity, and preparation. When we disregard this, we end up in the airless vacuum of confusion, resentment and stifled growth.
And yet, there is hope. Truly wonderful teaching and learning are often viewed as a kind of alchemy, a magical experience out of the reach of most lay practitioners. This is not so. The relationship between the student and the teacher is a social one, and like all social relationships, it is governed by rules of behavior. It is governed by manners. By this we do not mean merely the prevailing social customs, which can be fleeting and arbitrary, but rather the timelessly honorable manner of how we speak to and treat others. The absence of manners in the classroom distracts from the ennobling acts of teaching and learning. The presence of manners may remind us, as the poet says, of the inner gifts that await us when we practice respect and discipline. With this in mind, let us begin.
The classroom is among the most important places for one to be present and awake, both literally and metaphorically.
Dear students…in an ideal world, we would all face each day well-rested and prepared. But circumstances often conspire against us. Without doubt, falling asleep in class is impolite and disrespectful. Further, nothing is more disconcerting for a teacher than seeing someone nodding off in their classroom. Even the best teacher’s confidence can be shaken by looking out into a crowd of lifeless and unresponsive faces. Therefore professors will interpret falling asleep, and other acts of inattention, as criticisms of their worth as professors, and by default, as people, and they will dislike you intensely for it. While it is certainly true that the presentation style of many professors can and does lull even the most alert person into a state of torpor, it is essential that you find useful ways to keep yourself awake and focused during class. Not only will you increase your chances of learning more, you will also avoid making a negative impression on the person handing out the grades.
Therefore, remember these suggestions: concentrate on the main points of the lecture, try to anticipate the direction in which the lecture is going, and write down any questions that come to mind. If there is absolutely nothing to keep you engaged in what the instructor is saying, discreetly read the course text, make notes to yourself about upcoming assignments, or outline work that needs to be done. If even these stringent efforts fail, use the time to plan what you must do for the rest of your day, week, or month. Do not slump down in your seat, do not stare about the room, do not look at your cell phone or email, do not read the newspaper, do not talk to the person next to you, and do not listen to whatever headphone device you may have with you.
Dear faculty…no one enjoys falling asleep in class. It is embarrassing and disorienting. It is generally not an act of insolence, but a symptom of bad planning and poor study habits. Sadly, however, many of you do not always give even your most alert listeners a compelling reason to stay awake. You read from notes in flat and uninflected voices, you do not ask questions, you read from slides that everyone can read for themselves, and you rush through these slides at an alarming rate; in short, you talk at your students instead of with them.
You mistakenly believe that you must be “entertaining” in order to be a good teacher, but students do not come to class to be entertained; that is what television is for. They come to class to be engaged. However deeply buried this desire may be, and we must admit that often, it appears to be very deeply buried indeed, it is there. Keep in mind that every minute that you spend in the classroom with your students is a minute to be used wisely, seeking to stimulate this desire for engagement. There are hundreds of excellent resources on fostering student engagement. Please use them.
While a classroom is a place of honor and nobility, your appearance goals can and should remain modest: be neat, clean and respectable.
Clothing, or the lack thereof, is a very distracting element in the classroom. Students, please make note that there are no classroom circumstances under which you should display the skin on any part of your body between your shoulders and your knees. This is true at all times, but particularly in the case of presentations. Neither should you arrive at class in your pajamas. The only part of your body that it is preferable to uncover is your head, and unless religious reasons prevent you from doing so, we wish you would take this to heart.
Many faculty are not icons of fashion, and indeed, you may think fashion is frivolous. But this is not an excuse to stand in front of a classroom wearing mismatched, sloppy or poorly fitting clothing, or other distracting things such as white socks with dark shoes, ties that are three inches too short, panty hose with runs in them, white shoes after Labor Day, very crooked glasses, costumes, or anything not appropriate for your age. If you have children and are in doubt about your appearance, ask them. They will tell you the truth.
As we have said, the activity that takes place in a classroom is a conversation, a dialogue. Entering a mutually pleasing dialogue requires basic things such as respect and shared goals. These can be communicated through the simple social ritual of greeting one another and recognizing the purpose for which you are all present.
Therefore students…do not drift nor slink into the classroom 15 or 10 or even 5 minutes late. If you have a prior class that necessitates your late arrival on a regular basis, explain this to your instructor in advance, and assure him or her of your earnest efforts to arrive as promptly as possible. Do not wander into the classroom and call attention to your self by climbing over several people in an attempt to sit in the back of the room. If you must arrive late, be unobtrusive and apologetic. Similarly, if you must leave early, tell your instructor in advance and sit near the door so as to create a minimum of distraction when you leave. Neither skip a class completely and send a message to your instructor asking if you have missed “anything important.”
Instructors, arrive on time, if not early, and begin your class by greeting your students. Many of you behave as though students are not real people, but a different species with whom you have no idea how to converse. Any efforts at conversation, no matter how awkward, are better than avoiding engagement. Like making eye contact at the start of a conversation, begin your class with an acknowledgement of your students’ presence, a reminder of your joint purpose in being there, and your plan for the time you are spending together in the classroom. Remind students of what has gone before so that they can be more fully prepared for what is to come.
Dear overworked students, sometimes you are very busy and do not have time to eat during the day. Eating in the classroom in general is distasteful. And yet, it may sometimes be necessary. If you absolutely must eat during class, please sit in the back, and avoid the following things: food that comes in a crackly wrapper, food that has a strong smell, food that requires extra effort to consume, and food that will leave smears or crumbs on your desk or the floor. Refrain from gum chewing.
Faculty, it should go without saying that you must not eat or drink anything while you are teaching. The only exception is a glass or a bottle of water, discreetly placed near a lectern where it will not fall over. Do not drink out of a large or clumsy bottle with condensation on the sides that makes it look as though you hiked twenty miles to get to class. Do not drink soda or coffee, as this gives the impression that you are not able to stay awake during your own class. Refrain from gum chewing.
As Parker Palmer has written in his excellent and highly recommended book, The Courage to Teach, “From grade school on, education is a fearful enterprise” (36). Palmer speaks of the many structures that the academic environment has set up to allow us to protect ourselves from “one of the deepest fears at the heart of being human—the fear of having a live encounter with alien ‘otherness,’ whether the other is a student, a colleague, a subject, or a self-dissenting voice within” (37). But rather than be held hostage to these structures, we can, as Palmer reminds us, turn our attention to our own thoughts and behaviors, and in understanding our own fear, “overcome the structures of disconnection with the power of self-knowledge” (37).
Students, therefore, know that for many of your teachers, their sense of themselves is tied very closely to their work, and when they feel that they are bad teachers, they also feel that they are bad people. And as most human beings do, they wish to avoid experiences that elicit these feelings. There is fear in asking a question and having it be met by silence and apathy; there is fear in being asked a question you do not know the answer to; there is fear of conflict breaking out, of making a mistake, of getting lost in your own material. It is not your responsibility to fix this, just to be aware of it and be compassionate about it.
Faculty, though you may feel exposed and alone at the front of the classroom while your students are safe and anonymous in their sea of comrades, remember that they are also afraid. They are afraid of not understanding, of being conspicuous, of looking stupid, of not mattering. And as the teacher, it is your responsibility to fix this. Or, if not to fix it, then at least work actively to alleviate it. Speak to your students, not at them. Learn their names when possible. Ask them questions. Let them know that their opinions matter and that your classroom is a secure and challenging place to air them. Palmer reminds us that we must say to our students, in effect, “There are great gaps between us. But no matter how wide and perilous they may be, I am committed to bridging them—not only because you need me to help you on your way but also because I need your insight and energy to help me renew my own life” (Palmer, 49).
The classroom is not an airport or a train station, but its occupants are often burdened with enough baggage as if it were. Jackets, backpacks, bags on wheels, roller blades, beverage containers, laptops and other assorted electronic devices…the rows and desks are strewn with this wide variety of items.
Students, care should be taken that any item you have about you not inconvenience others. Do not rummage around unnecessarily in your bag during class. Keep the objects that you need easily to hand. But keep in mind that class is neither the time nor the place to recreate a small version of your dorm or apartment study area. Unless you are a person with a disability, do not wear anything in your ears or over your eyes. Recognize that communication devices of any kind are distracting not only to you but to everyone around you. It only takes one person to display a lack of attention for others to assume that there is no harm in it; you do not wish to be that person.
Faculty, it is crucial that any item that you use while teaching be an aid to student learning, not an obstacle. This includes your slides, overheads, notes, any video and/or audio equipment, the way you write on the blackboard, and the markers you use to draw on the whiteboard or transparencies. Make sure, in advance, that everything you plan to use functions properly. Have an alternative plan in the case of technical difficulties so that you do not waste time, hunched over computer cables and USB ports, while your students stare, glassy-eyed, at the screen blinking back and forth between your desktop and the files that you can’t open. Do not switch excessively between various forms of equipment. Use presentation slides that are clean and well-crafted. The design of effective slides is largely a matter of care and attention, not skill. It is care and attention very well spent.
On Posture and Physical Gestures
Heaven alone knows that most classrooms are not designed for physical comfort. However, students, out of respect for your teacher and your fellow classmates, and because it will help you stay alert, make every attempt to sit upright in your seats and pay attention to what is going on around you. Do not slump down in your seat so that you are practically parallel with the floor. Do not lean your head on your hand in such a way that it looks like you will not be able to hold it up for another second. Do not let your legs stick out into the aisle so that someone will trip over them. Do not sit at the end of a row when there are seats in the middle open and someone will have to crawl over you to get to them if they come in after you. Do not sit in the back row when all of the rows close to the front are open.
Faculty, very few people are naturally interesting speakers. Most speakers who can engage the interest of listeners for extended periods of time are able to do so because they have practiced their delivery. Delivery includes the tone and volume of your voice as well as how you use your hands and move about the room. You may not be aware that you have annoying physical or verbal habits, but rest assured that your students are. Many campuses have facilities that enable you to videotape yourself teaching. Take advantage of them.
The origins of the word responsibility contain the meanings, “to answer,” and even “to pledge.” They remind us yet again that teaching and learning occur in the context of a relationship, and all fruitful relationships require commitment, trust, and a sense of shared purpose.
Students, keep in mind that the activities associated with a class, activities such as participating in discussions, completing assignments, studying for exams, indeed coming to class at all are not intended to be optional. They are calls to participate, and your role as a responsible student requires you to respond to them. Your participation and your behavior matter. Therefore, do not sit in stony silence when a question is asked, casting your eyes at the floor or the top of your desk. Do not behave in a lackadaisical manner all semester and then ask, a week before grades are due, if there is any “extra credit” you can do to make up for your poor performance. Do not miss class or lab or discussion groups, especially to the point that you are too self-conscious to return. Do not tell your teacher that your parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, roommate, next-door neighbor, animal or bird has died if it is not so. Do not ask us to accommodate an exam conflict because you are going on vacation. Do not cheat or plagiarize under any circumstances (see Breaches of Etiquette below), but especially do not do so and then lie about it when you are discovered.
Faculty, if you expect students to behave responsibly in your classroom, you must treat them with respect. This means, among other things, being reliable, present and challenging. It means having clear and well-explained expectations for what you want them to do. It means having fair and well-established grading practices. It means grading things on time and with useful and purposeful feedback. Most importantly, do not think of students as children or idiots, even when they act as such, because if you think this way they will know it and behave accordingly. Students, like all people, are works in progress, but they are not stupid, lazy, or uninterested. They want to witness your passion. They want to know that you believe in them, and that your work, and therefore presumably someday their own, matters in the world.
Breaches of Etiquette (When Things Go Wrong)
Naturally but regrettably, there are behaviors that occur which fall outside the well-ordered realm of propriety. There are transgressions. Among the worst of these are cheating, lying, and stealing (plagiarizing). These actions do harm to the contract of trust and mutual respect upon which the work of the classroom depends. Fortunately, there are usually reliable and well-tested mechanisms in place to handle these behaviors should they occur. It is crucial that all students and teachers know and understand the rules governing these actions. That is what official handbooks and guidelines are for. Please use them.
Even worse than these behaviors, however, are those which harm more than the social system of the classroom, and they are those which harm people. In this category we include speaking disrespectfully about any person or persons, displaying derogatory images, either in class or on any material associated with the class, writing profane or objectionable remarks anywhere, including on anonymous evaluation forms, and remaining ignorant of the needs of persons with disabilities of any kind.
While they may often feel anonymous and disconnected, classrooms are made of up individual people, people whose thoughts, feelings, and psyches live on long after the work of the classroom has been done. We must act in a manner which upholds the civility of the classroom so that it is robust enough to contain all of the exploration, inspiration, excitement, and creativity that it is intended to foster.