I was a child who very much cared about pleasing my parents, and my earliest memories seem to involve the stressful or surprising moments when I did not please them. For example, I must have been around four years old and my family was at a restaurant having lunch. A child at another table was talking loudly and waving his arms. My response was to stare at that child, and I lifted my arm to point at him and asked my parents to look too. To my surprise, I was told clearly not to point at anyone and to stop looking at the child. The direct message was, “It’s not polite,” and I was not supposed to stare and point here or anywhere else.
Were my parents teaching me values? At the time, they would probably have said no, they were teaching me to be polite and to behave in a way that was acceptable in American society. They were teaching me basic etiquette and good manners. But through etiquette and manners, they were also teaching me values. In this case, they wanted to teach me to respect the privacy of others and to mind my own business.
Every year, I hear more and more about teaching values in the classroom. Some governments suggest that teachers do it. Some schools enrol students by telling parents that their teachers do it. Some parents specifically ask teachers to help them out by teaching values.
It might seem like you’re being asked to do too much when, on top of teaching English, you have to teach students to be kind, helpful, fair, polite and careful while learning about recycling, caring for the environment and respecting the world around them. You might shake your head and say, “It just can’t be done.”
I suggest it can and, chances are, you’re already doing it.
When a student throws trash on the floor, you probably ask the student to pick it up. It’s basic manners to clear up our own mess, but you’re also teaching about the value of respect for ourselves, others, the school, and the environment by asking a student to pick up some paper they left on the floor. You’re teaching values.
You ask a student to lend you a pen or to demonstrate an activity and as you ask, you say “Please.” You then say “Thank you” when it’s done. And you ask students to use those same terms with you and their classmates in similar situations. You’re teaching manners and basic etiquette, but you’re also teaching gratitude and respect for things others give or do. You’re teaching values.
These values start small. We can’t and don’t expect that picking up one piece of paper will cause a student to become an advocate for a neighbourhood recycling program. We can’t expect that saying “Thank you” one time will cause a child to be more respectful of another person’s time and energy. But it’s a beginning.
More importantly, just as I needed to be told not to stare and point at another child in a restaurant, our students need direct and clear coaching in what society expects of them. Yes, of course, children absorb values from what they see around them. If everyone in the car puts a seat belt on, a child will one day learn that people wear seat belts in the car and probably do it too. But asking a child to please put his seat belt on might be the first step. And parents might have to remind the child several times, if not hundreds of times before a child remembers.
Our job as teachers (among many other things!) is to reinforce what children learn at home and help create citizens of the world who are not only polite but who respect others, who care for their environments, and who care for themselves. And particularly in primary classes, we don’t start with bigger issues like climate change, immigration, sexual identity, or hate crimes. We start by asking students to say “Please,” to clean up their messes, and remember to wait for their turn. These small values grow and build on one another until students begin to understand the bigger picture.
There are lots of manners and values to work on, but teachers can start by reinforcing them slowly and individually. For example, have Please and Thank You Week. During this week (or month, depending on your schedule), suggest that everyone remember to say please and thank you. In the classroom, they can do this in English. And they can do it in their native language outside the classroom – in other classes, in their communities and at home. To wrap up, spend a few minutes practising the different situations where students might say please and thank you.
For children, learning explicit values can be lots of fun. They enjoy helping one another remember this week’s value and really enjoy seeing me, the teacher, occasionally forget to use it (we’re all learning together!). At the beginning of the next class, I can ask students if they used their polite words yesterday. Did they use them with other teachers, or friends, or their families? I’d ask students to volunteer success stories and ask the class to act out that story in English. We might even make a poster and at the end of the week, we can celebrate by drawing a big star to show that we’ve mastered please and thank you.
By breaking values into small, meaningful chunks, stating our expectations, following up during the week and rewarding students for good behaviour, teaching values becomes not only manageable, but also incredibly helpful to your image as a teacher. Imagine being a mother whose child suddenly starts saying please or sharing with his little sister? If that mother finds out it’s because his English teacher suggested it (and she will), you’re a star!
So here’s a challenge: Besides Please and Thank You Week, what other “values weeks” could we plan? I’ve made a poster, stuck it to the wall beside my computer and will write your suggestions on it. Get yourself a star and share your ideas!
Turn your students into citizens! I’m running a free webinar on teaching values on 15th and 16th May, so if you want to find out more please do join me! Click the button below to register.
Teachers play an important role in a child’s awareness of politeness, kindness, sharing etc. Susan Banman Sileci, co-author of the new Primary course, Everybody Up, shares some of her ideas on how to bring values into the classroom.