The Importance of Being Courteous

At Wakefield Country Day School, courtesy is an important part of education.

The school’s handbook includes twenty traditional courtesies, and all students in grades 1-12 review the “WCDS Courtesies” at the beginning of each year.  To set a serious but fun tone to the study of manners, members of the senior class perform comical courtesy skits on stage during the first few weekly assemblies.  The seniors, as leaders of the student body, write scripts, prepare costumes, gather props, and dramatize the “right way” and “wrong way” for students to behave in the classroom, on the playing field, in the lunch room, and in the community at large.

Last week, the assembly audience enjoyed a few “WCDS Courtesies” on stage, in fine hyperbolic fashion:

  • Students always greet their bus drivers, classmates, and teachers courteously, both on arrival in the morning and on meeting during the course of the day;
  • Students stand when an adult visitor enters the room;
  • Students observe conventional rules of etiquette when eating to help make the lunch room a pleasant environment for everyone.

Of course, the “wrong way” of doing all of the above garnered the most laughs from students and teachers, but in the end, the skits showing the “right way” of doing things gained the most nods and applause.

Once the expectations for school conduct are set early on, the practice of courtesy takes place all year, and soon habits are formed by children of all ages.  “During lunch, on one of our first days of school,” recalls teacher Lori Perry, “I asked a first grade student if the trash under her table belonged to her.  She said no and proceeded to pick it up without a single complaint and without being asked.”  Perry then offered to throw away the trash but says the young girl “happily declined and did it herself.”

On the first day of school, fifth grade students at WCDS practice standing in unison to greet adult visitors entering their classroom.

In addition to learning how to be courteous individuals, students also learn how to be courteous as a group or audience.  Jason Brady, a WCDS parent and member of the school’s Board of Directors, remembers how he felt the first time he saw one particular group courtesy on display.  “Before my wife Nicole and I became parents, she was a teacher in Fairfax County and later at Wakefield Country Day School,” says Brady, “and one day I popped into her 6th grade classroom at WCDS to drop off some materials for class.  Upon my entering the classroom, every student stood up.  My wife introduced me as Mr. Brady, and the class welcomed me in unison.”

Although Brady had visited his wife’s classroom in Fairfax County many times, he had never received that same greeting.  “The WCDS Courtesies made a lasting impression on me,” he remarks, “and I am sure those life skills will have a lasting impact for students in the working world and beyond.”

As with any type of learning, skills and understanding develop at different rates in students, and the manners learned at a younger age can become more formal and refined in the teenage years.  During the WCDS Senior Life Skills Week, a springtime series of lessons imparted to the graduating class to help prepare them for the next phase of their lives, seniors attend an etiquette session hosted by Susan Dryden Whitson, WCDS parent and former Press Secretary to First Lady Laura Bush.  At this presentation and luncheon, in between stories of lavish state dinners and glamorous galas, Whitson shares proper dining etiquette with the class while explaining traditional table settings—including how to remember which fork to use when.

While some may consider the school’s attention to manners to be rather old-fashioned, students and staff at the school take that critique in stride (as shown by the humorous courtesy skits) and know that beneath the “pomp and circumstance” there’s a really good reason for learning polite, attentive behavior: it’s an important first step in the classical approach to education.

When a community sets expectations for courteous behavior, students learn that courteous citizens can better communicate with one another.  Students see that effective communication cultivates a deeper understanding of ideas and events, past and present, and they realize that a better understanding of different views fosters a richer learning experience for all.

WCDS Admissions Director Lisa Cieplak has been a parent at the school for thirteen years, working the past ten years in the admissions office, and she finds many people are impressed by the school’s old-fashioned approach to good manners.  “When I talk about the courtesies to parents,” Cieplak relates, “they find it refreshing and rare that a school would put such emphasis on these things.”  And while Cieplak values the positive reaction from prospective parents, she too knows there’s more to manners than meets the eye.

“Courtesy is the first level of respect in maintaining a civil society,” notes Cieplak as she considers the many ways the school’s classical education prepares students for civic engagement.  “Being courteous demonstrates that you as an individual, and those with whom you interact, have intrinsic value, by virtue of being a human being.  Our showing of civility invites others to see the value in themselves and those around them.”

Indeed, courtesy is an important part of a Wakefield Country Day School education.