Courtesy: a double standard?

One of my colleagues has asked us not to cut in line in the cafeteria, correctly pointing out that “adults set the tone and serve as personal examples of respectful behavior.” I agree with the text, but I have some problems with the subtext.

First of all, let me make it clear that I have no dog in this fight. Since I always bring my lunch to school, I have no need to stand in the cafeteria line and haven’t done so for about eight or nine years. When I did, I certainly wouldn’t consider it my prerogative to cut in line. But clearly some of my colleagues feel differently. After all, we have responsibilities. We’re busy and stressed and can’t afford to waste time.

So what’s going on here? My second point is that teens are exceptionally sensitive to double standards. Surely we all remember that when we were in high school and college we couldn’t abide the idea of two different moralities, one for adults and one for us. That’s why I have no trouble with the text. Yes, we should avoid cutting in line.

And yet…and yet…here is my trouble with the subtext: If people interpret it to be a claim that students and teachers should be held to the same rules, they are oversimplifying, for the situation is more nuanced than that. It’s not just a matter of morals and ethics. Yes, we “set the tone and serve as personal examples of respectful behavior,” but the specifics aren’t so simple. On the one hand, adults should live by the same broad standards as teens: no cheating, no lying, no disrespectful words or behavior. On the other hand, it would be foolish to pretend that we are in equal positions. Teachers have an authority and a responsibility that are qualitatively different from the roles of students. For example, it’s sometimes necessary for a teacher to tell kids to stop talking, but it would be inappropriate and rude for a student to tell a teacher to stop talking. The situation just isn’t reversible.

Some students at Weston are rude and presumptuous. A few treat teachers as their servants. But the majority of students are remarkably polite and respectful. I continue to be amazed at how many of my students say thank you as they leave the classroom. And a clear majority of them say thank you when I hand them a test! (It’s not that they’re truly thankful, but more that they have learned from their parents that they should say thank you when handed something. Politeness works. Courtesy helps.) Yes, it is important for us to act as models of courtesy in these regards. But we are not equals and should not pretend to be.

Finally, on a related subject — but perhaps not an identical subject — I have sometimes been told that I talk to kids in just the same way as I talk to adults. I tend to talk to 10-year-olds, 15-year-olds, and 25-year-olds in pretty much the same way. To me, that’s a matter of respect and courtesy. But I was astonished a few years ago when two of my 15-year-old students interpreted this behavior as talking down to them! I still don’t fully understand it, but apparently they thought I was being discourteous by treating them as adults.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning, Weston