This past weekend, I was in my home reading alongside my older children — one of the great delights of my older daughters' entrance into middle childhood with its blessed ability to read independently — and I pulled one of Crystal's old books off the shelf: the late Kate Spade's Manners. As I often do with a new book, I started with an inspectional read, using my curiosity to guide me rather than the author's order. As you'll see, I quickly discovered some good reminders for teachers like me.
In a time when civil discourse is marked by incivility, the important role of manners can't be under-estimated. Manners are the stuff of coexisting with all kinds of people — including people who hate your candidate and love the one they hate, or those folks who see the issue you care about most in exactly the opposite way as you do.
But manners also matter, as productivity philosopher Peter Drucker writes, for managing our careers and lives. In “Managing Oneself,”* Drucker calls manners “the lubricating oil of an organization.” He goes on:
“Manners — simple things like saying ‘please' and ‘thank you' and knowing a person's name or asking after her family — enable two people to work together whether they like each other or not. Bright people, especially bright young people, often do not understand this. If analysis shows that someone's brilliant work fails again and again as soon as cooperation from others is required, it probably indicates a lack of courtesy — that is, a lack of manners.
So: if our aim is to make the the most useful contribution we can to the long-term flourishing of young people, then perhaps indeed we're wise to take a minute and inspect our lives for the following ten tips for teachers from Kate Spade's book on manners.
[And quickly, an author's note: These tips can seem a bit snooty if you're in an ornery mood (as I was while writing a draft of this article), so if you're feeling grumpy, it may be best to save this one for another day.]
1. “Give praise when relevant, but don't go overboard — too much blunts sincerity and credibility.”
I've written lots about teacher credibility — for student motivation, it's the one belief that rules them all. But Spade is right — praising someone too much, particularly an adolescent, can seem unearned, so it loses its power.
In a 2016 interview for The Atlantic, Carol Dweck lends a scientific angle to all of this.
“Students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”
Similarly, administrators need to be careful not to overpraise their teachers. You don't want to be the boss that is always saying, “Oh my goodness, you're the best, this staff is the best, we're the best.” Rather, keep your team focused on the work at hand, constantly driving toward improvement.
Clear, honest, thoughtful, helpful communication — that is what we're after.
2. “Boasting is boring.”
Google defines boasting as “excessively proud and self-satisfied talk about one's achievements, possessions, or abilities.” Thus, if one finds humility to be a virtue (I do), then boasting is a moral problem.
But Spade brings humility into the realm of manners, too. The problem with boasting, Spade argues, isn't just that it's rude and egocentric. It's that boasting is also uninteresting. Listening to someone prattle on about how great they are, or how great their students are, is rather mundane.
More on talking about our students next.
3. “When talking about your children, easy does it. Touting your child's skills or appearance can be off-putting to your listener. The same holds true for pets.”
Ever get caught in that professional conversation where the person you're talking to just constantly talks about how amazing their students are? Yeah… that used to be me. So, save yourself the embarrassment: if you are reading this and you do that, try not to. Your audience may be politely listening, but that's only because they are polite.
It's not that our intentions are bad when we talk about our students (or our children, or our pets). But good intentions, as my mother-in-law memorably says, pave the road to hell. When it comes to manners, the problems don't come from bad intentions — they come from putting the other person off.
Don't eat someone else's time with your autobiography. They hope in talking to you to be regaled with tales of how great your kids are.
The best time to share about your life, I've found, is when someone asks you to do so. Otherwise, it's safest (and nicest) just to ask about their life.
4. “Humor is healthy. Sarcasm and malice are not.”
I wrote on this previously when circumstances in my classroom meshed with what I was reading in David Sousa's How the Brain Learns.
5. “Don't worry about being clever. Be genuine, be yourself.”
Early on in my career, I felt especially stupid around my smarter, better read colleagues. While they cited numerous teacher-writers in staff development meetings, I was simply trying to figure out how to spell the names they were saying.
But then, once I improved at professional reading, I started doing the ol' “Well, research says this” phrase. Basically, I wanted to sound smart, too.
Phrases like that, however, aren't helpful. They're an attempt to sound smart. And, since they are so vague, they are not communicative power plays. Instead, our goal in communication should always be to be useful. It's about the listener, not about us.
6. “Don't use a cell phone as a panacea for boredom.”
This might be billboard worthy. Except the problem is that people who are bored while driving their cars wouldn't see the billboard because they would be on their cell phones.
Spade wrote the book in 2004. She truly had no idea how problematic this problem would become.
Remember: Spade's focus was on manners. Pulling out our cell phones isn't just a self-control issue or an addiction issue. It's a matter of civility.
[Note: In all of these, I'm addressing myself, too.]
7. “Gossiping is as reckless as riding in a car without a seat belt.”
To gossip is to share unpleasant truths about someone when that someone is not around. Gossiping is akin to smoking a cigarette: delivers a brief buzz to the nervous system while delivering an incremental poison to our inner workings. It wastes time, corrodes our souls, and damages culture. It's also very hard to stop doing.
Spade's solution? “Buckle up, button up, zip it, sshhhh.”
It doesn't need to be much more complicated than that.
8. “When you insult another, you insult yourself.”
Again, if only Spade new the degree to which ours would become a society of insults when she was writing in 2004.
Of course, it doesn't need to be that kind of society. You and I can be the kind of people who refrain from insults.
But what about when we're insulting a person who is the physical embodiment of insults? What about insulting a bully?
I think in these cases, Spade is still right. Picture the rudest and most unkind person in the world. What does insulting them improve?
9. “Showing respect is a gift, one that costs nothing and is endlessly appreciated.”
The other morning, I went to breakfast with my friend Chris. Typically, Chris and I have fairly intense conversations — straight to business kinds of affairs. And I enjoy this! But on this particular morning, Chris began by asking me five or so questions about me, all in a row.
Asking someone questions, just for the sake of learning about them, is one way to show respect. Here are some others:
- Congratulate people on their successes.
- Compliment people on their children or students.
- If a student says something about another teacher that is positive, share the compliment with the teacher.
- If a coworker is having trouble with the copier, help them. (This one is hard for me!)
- Say thank you
“But Dave,” the discerning reader might ask, “what if I don't actually respect these people? What if I am surrounding by ignoramuses? In Tip 5, Spade told me to be genuine, be myself!”
Right. I think Spade is a bit off with that part of Tip 5. You've never met an incredible person who always felt like acting incredible. That person became incredible by doing, day by day, minute by minute, incredible things.
Seth Godin defines authenticity not as being who you are, but as “doing what you promise.”
C.S. Lewis, in his beautiful chapter on charity in Mere Christianity, writes:
“Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
Under Lewis' logic, it seems that Spade's advice on respect is missing something. When we show respect to a colleague, it's not just a gift to them — it's a gift to us. Interaction by interaction, we become what we do.
10. “Making others feel at ease is the essence of etiquette, yesterday and today.”
And so too is making students feel at ease the first step to building a beliefs-rich classroom. We want our classes and schools to be places where our students feel so at ease that they are able to jump into the hardest intellectual and artistic and physical challenges.
I hope that by now, you're seeing how a book on manners can actually make us better teachers. I find this to be one more example of how the best professional development need not be on teaching at all. It can be on time management, or public speaking, or social etiquette.**
*Thank you to my friend and mentor Jim Burke for recommending Drucker's article.
**Thank you to the late Kate Spade for giving this book to us, and thank you to Crystal Stuart for letting me read it 🙂