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Teacher Etiquette by David Moran

etiquette /ˈɛtɪkɛt/ /ɛtɪˈkɛt/


the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.

ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from French étiquette ‘list of ceremonial observances of a court,’ also ‘label, etiquette,’ from Old French estiquette.

Last month I entered my classroom brightly at 12.00pm for my usual Academic Writing class or, as I prefer to call it, I can’t wait for lunch class, and found the whiteboard a complete mess. The previous teacher had left the entire whiteboard, and I mean entire whiteboard, filled with mathematical symbols and equations that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out. It looked important and it looked like it took hours of hard work. Was it needed? Did the teacher leave it there to look at tomorrow? This had never happened before, well not with this teacher anyway. What was I to do? Leave it up there and not use the whiteboard or rub it all off and hope I wasn’t going to annoy my colleague? This leads me to think about our responsibilities to our colleagues or co-teachers and the idea of teacher etiquette.

If etiquette is the customary polite behaviour amongst members of a profession, what is customary polite behaviour amongst ESL/EFL teachers? How do we go about our work, which by its very nature is quite isolating from colleagues? What I mean by that is that at the end of the day our ‘job performance,’ for want of a better word, is standing in front of a class, by ourselves. Very few of us teach, at the same time, to the same students. So what are our responsibilities in terms of teacher etiquette? I don’t want to include behaviour towards students, that for me is another topic, but how do we go about treating our fellow teachers.

When I started high school teaching a millennium ago, very little advice was forthcoming from my teacher-trainers, in terms of teaching etiquette. Everything was about the students. Fair enough, but what about my responsibilities to my colleagues or co-teachers. I remember one high school teacher-trainer telling me to never annoy the admin staff, if you need something more than likely they are the ones who’ll have to get it. This has remained true for me my whole professional life. There is someone at every school who has the unofficial power to make your life easy or difficult. Find out who that is and never, ever annoy them, no matter what. I remember that one school in Japan treated the photocopy repairman like a prince1. They were right to do so. Without the photocopiers and printers (I hate it when they are the same device) a school stops.

When it comes to polite behaviour towards your colleagues I always thought that you should leave a classroom the way you would like to find it. This included cleaning off the blackboard or whiteboard before you left, no matter how late you were going to be. If you have some sort of weird desk placement or you like to have your students work on the floor, you should put the desks back in some sort of ‘traditional’ placement. But what else might teacher etiquette imply?

What do you do when your students are complaining about a co-teacher, former teacher, the administration of the school? Even those you dislike, let alone those you like. For those of you that remember Hogan Heroes, I personally prefer the Sergeant Schultz method, I know nothing, I see nothing, I hear nothing. I am only half joking. Unless the situation involves bodily harm I rarely get involved. Is that the right thing to do? I am not a supervisor or head of department, it is not my job to criticize teachers and who am I to judge anyway. Or do I have a greater responsibility to my students and inform the powers that be when there is a problem with a co-worker. How do you handle those conversations? Do you use anonymity? “One student has said that you’re not very organised first thing in the morning.” I hate those conversations because most of the time students themselves wouldn’t know organisation if it hit them on the head, I mean just look at their vocabulary notebooks. How do you know if it is just a perception the student has and not reality?

These types of situations come up quite a lot with co-teachers. You teach one class, say, reading and writing and another teaches listening and speaking. Students will come to you and complain2 about your co-teacher. In my case, students are very good at playing one teacher off against another. “Mr X doesn’t mark us late if we are only 15 minutes late, why do you?” “Ms Y lets us hand in our assignments late, why don’t you?” This drives me crazy. I know sometimes the little crazy rules schools have seem pedantic but they are there to stop this sort of thing and so often teachers ignore them. Is this bad teacher etiquette or something deeper? My co-teacher and I this semester have teamed up against students by showing up to the first day of classes together, united, to show that you can’t play us against each other. They will still try of course.

I would like to know what you all think. Email me your experiences and thoughts at teacheretiquette@gmail.com  What other areas of teacher etiquette do you think are important to mention and let others know about? Could we come up with a list of common rules of teacher etiquette for ESF/EFL teachers? I am really interested in how people handle the issue of complaints from students about co-teachers and I would like to write up another article with your thoughts and opinions (anonymously if requested).

1 This made me think that all teacher-training courses should include basic photocopier maintenance skills.

2 I want to use a word that rhymes with itch but that isn’t polite.

Author’s Bio:
David Moran is an English Lecturer at Qatar University. He also works as a freelance presentation designer and consultant. You can contact him at d.moran@mac.com.

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