Recently, while involved with a school where the majority of the families experience poverty, I noticed that a number of the male students were wearing dress shirts and ties. Given that this school did not have a uniform, the students most often wore jeans and hoodies, not shirts and ties. I also noted that when in the school, the majority of the senior students (Grades 7 and 8 ) would approach each other or an adult and say good morning using the other’s name, and then ask how they were that day. The other person would respond in kind.
The formal structure of the discourse is what caught me off guard. When I inquired about both of the things I had noticed, one of the staff members told me that the teachers of the senior class had decided that they were going to assist these students more than just academically. They wanted to put into practice the use of formal register in daily conversation.
They set about teaching the students the formal way to greet people, explaining that this would be most valuable when in the workforce or as they pursued further education. They modeled the behavior and practiced in the class. After that they challenged the students to do the same in the hallways of the school. After a short period of time, it became second nature. It modeled for the younger students the importance of language in daily communication with others.
But that didn’t account for change in their attire. The staff of the senior division made a decision to dress more professionally. The men wore shirts and ties and the women were in suits or dresses. Soon students who normally didn’t get ‘dressed up’ for school were showing up in dress shirts, sometimes borrowed and a little too big, and asking to borrow a tie. The staff always had extra ones available and started to teach the boys how to tie them for themselves. The girls as well began to wear different clothes to school.
You often hear complaints about the way young people dress and how they speak to each other. After seeing the effects of modeling formal behavior in this school, I wonder if the problem might be that we, as the adults, have lowered our expectations of youth today.
Vickie Komar, M.S.W. of LaSalle, Ontario, Canada, is the Supervisor of Social Work and Attendance Counseling Services for the Greater Essex County District School Board. She is responsible for overseeing social work service delivery to over 70 elementary and secondary schools, where she consults with educators regarding the needs of students. Vickie is chair of the Violence Prevention Committee; the Chairperson of the Jeers and Tears: Violence Prevention Conference; and a certified trainer in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Vickie has presented the Framework for Understanding Poverty workshops since November 2001 and has been a consultant for Ruby Payne since 2003.