Mr. Heller's Column: The Power of Civility

I write this month about one of the important, essential truths about life that I believe students of all ages need to understand. The message is actually rather simple: at school and in life, civility matters.  Manners make a difference.

With today’s increased focus on standardized testing and school grades, I fear that schools’ vital job of creating and nurturing strong citizens is being threatened.  In 21st century America, civility is more rare than it should be.  It certainly runs against the grain of the media-driven culture in which our children are immersed.  School ought to be a counter-weight to that base culture.  We should insist that schools be places where we learn and practice civility, where we treat each other well. 

Of course, our schools must be designed to prepare students for their next academic steps, for college and career, but I believe we have to do much more than that.  Our real goal is to prepare students for life.  And we would serve them well by remembering that “what we permit, we promote.”

One of the greatest thinkers in human history was Buddha, and the first of his “Noble Truths” about life was that “life is suffering.”  I think the more modern version is “Life is difficult.”  It is.  Growing up is difficult.  But once we accept and understand that it is, we can begin to travel down the road of making it less and less difficult.  The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that there is a problem.  So life is difficult.  What is it that lifts us up out of the problem that life is difficult?  It’s good relationships with other people.  Good relationships make our lives good.  Bad relationships make our lives bad.  Life is what our relationships make it.

Wow.  Life is the search for good relationships.  How do we make that happen?  Since it’s hard to have relationships when we’re entirely alone, we have to learn how to live well with others.  Thus, rules or ways of doing things that make us appeal to others are very, very important.  Manners accomplish that.  They convey a common language, a road map that helps us both understand and come across well to others.

When we make life easier or lessen the burdens of life for those around us, we are doing well.  When our choices add to the inherent difficulty of the circles we travel in, we are not doing well.  Civil behavior — simple politeness — allows us to connect successfully with others.  Through civil choices we develop thoughtfulness and communication.  Through civil choices, we build relationships.  That’s the environment schools need to build.  That’s what should be expected of all members of every school community, teachers, administrators, parents, and students alike.

Here are some examples (and this is by no means a complete list):

  • Saying “please” and “thank you”
  • Shaking hands firmly and making eye contact
  • Responding politely to greetings and requests
  • Welcoming newcomers
  • Listening to understand and to help
  • Respecting those who are different from ourselves
  • Realizing that “where you stand has an impact on what you see.”
  • Acknowledging our mistakes and our imperfection
  • Refusing to participate in malicious gossip
  • Using technological communication tools with wisdom and restraint
  • Dressing appropriately for each occasion
  • Disagreeing with poise
  • Playing, winning and losing with grace
  • Respecting teammates and opponents
  • Avoiding taunting and excessive celebration
  • Accepting questionable calls by officials
  • Accepting the fact the “no” is sometimes a very appropriate answer (that the noted philosopher Mick Jagger was correct in his admonition, “You can’t always get what you want.”)
  • Learning to wait patiently for most things, to delay gratification
  • If all members of school communities practiced and insisted on these simple, civil choices, it would go a long way toward improving education and our world.  It would also help us meet the mandate of our core mission: helping students learn to cope with what life will throw at them.

    Civil choices make the quality of our lives better.  They smooth the paths of everyone in the community. They lighten our burdens.  They help us build relationships.  They cause us to come together, to grow, and to rise.  They should be part of every student’s day each and every day.

    Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3- 12th grade independent school in the north Tampa area, serving students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando Counties.