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Business Officer Magazine

Getting Their 
Best Behavior

Teaching students civility requires active 
modeling of civil behavior and discourse 
in and beyond the classroom.

By Judy Rookstool

The Peaceable Workplace

Concern about civility, or lack thereof, has been with us for a very long time. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was reported to have said: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. … They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” While it is difficult to verify an actual decline of civility, since that measure depends largely on our own perception, concern about incivility has certainly received its share of attention in recent days.


At its core, civility is a practical skill, rooted in the values of a culture. Yet, evidence suggests that society as a whole is suffering a diminution of civility, and civility is said to be less and less evident in our schools. Even as there is an increasing emphasis upon civic engagement, students may not possess the kind of “civility skills” that allow them to engage with others and to recognize the value of others’ ideas and the dignity of each person. 

As a practical matter, civility and civil discourse should be included in the discussion of all operations of educational institutions, addressing such questions as how the college community can encourage civility, civil discourse, and respect toward and among students, faculty, and staff. In effect, civility represents that larger purpose of the academy—that is, to develop problem-solving skills in a diverse population of students, thereby enhancing their educational and social development.

Can Civility Be Taught?

My own interest in how to nurture civility and civil discourse within the classroom led me to conduct a semester-length research project while at San Jose City College in California. Using principles of Classroom Action Research (systematic inquiry to determine what works best in your own situation), I examined the attitudes of students toward civility using pre- and post-survey data, classroom intervention, student and faculty focus groups, and student ratings of classroom attitudes. While this project was conducted on a small scale, results indicated that a classroom discussion about civility combined with exercises reinforcing key concepts increased students’ awareness of others and of their own attitudes about civility. It likewise enhanced the level of respect employed and experienced by students and instructors.

Civility and civil discourse promote and are conducive to learning. When a student feels comfortable that he or she will be treated with respect and care by the instructor and by others, the student may be more willing to participate in class, and hence, in learning.

Although community colleges do not foster the close association of on-campus living, the interaction found in their classes and cocurricular activities has some of the same challenges to and opportunities for the development of ethical and civil behavior. I believe there are at least two reasons for this:

  • Schools are socially embedded institutions. Sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that society is a system of interconnected parts, and that schools are both parts of the system and mechanisms for maintaining and improving society. The community college, as an institution formed to draw upon and contribute to its community, is essential in the development of commonly shared values.
  • Community colleges represent and serve the diversity of their communities. Within the community college, we have students who may not have a tradition of higher education and students from countries where there may not be a tradition of civil discourse. It is no wonder there is occasional confusion about the expectations of classroom behavior. As community colleges assume greater importance in teaching increasingly diverse students who are seeking increasingly necessary educational goals, we as education providers are called upon to furnish effective, meaningful knowledge and useful life skills that benefit the full community.

To be sure, faculty have a responsibility not only to model civility, but also to expect civility from their students and from one another. Beyond the curriculum, participation in campus and community-based activities such as service learning and in leadership development and governance aspects of the college can help students extend and practice civil behaviors learned in the classroom. In this regard, the entire staff as well as faculty members should be involved in encouraging and supporting a culture of civility on campus. Administrators—including business officers—are key in creating such a culture, as they interact with students and influence how the institution develops.

Civil Actions

What follows are recommended actions that administrators can take to promote a culture of civility and to model civil behaviors and attitudes (adapted from Fostering Civility on Campus).

Communicate civility. Using both words and visual cues to draw attention to desired behaviors and attitudes can encourage all members of the campus community to model civility. 

  • Post signage in public areas defining and describing civility.
  • Include language about mutual respect within the institution’s mission statement and within campus-generated publications such as institution brochures and course catalogs.
  • Identify standards of student conduct within student services documents and other widely disseminated materials so that students are clear about expectations regarding their behavior.
  • Encourage inclusion of statements in course syllabi delineating expectations of civility, mutual respect, and civil conduct within the classroom.
  • Provide public spaces on campus with art, colorful surroundings, cultural performances, comfortable seating, and meaningful signage. In conjunction with new campus construction, increase public meeting spaces and establish visually well-defined entrances to the campus. Such efforts provide a sense of welcome to all community members.
  • In that same spirit of hospitality—and in recognition that the initial experience of college can be a daunting one for many students—establish a good first impression when welcoming new students. Make certain that administrators and student services staff are around campus during peak times of the first week to answer questions and address student concerns (“Ask Me” buttons are good).

In effect, civility represents that larger purpose of the academy—that is, to develop problem-solving skills in a diverse population of students.

  • Create a compendium of best practices that encourage civility, and provide frequent and public recognition of students and employees who model respect and civil behavior in distinct ways.

Involve the community. All members of a campus community should be invited to participate in the life of the institution to enhance a sense of shared citizenship.

  • Ensure that students have meaningful avenues to participate in the governance and decision making of the institution, including a strong student advisory council.
  • Involve students in discussions about issues for which they have direct concerns, such as proposed fees and cost increases.
  • Encourage faculty to set aside at least one class discussion per semester to address expectations about open dialogue, mutual respect, and civility, and to conduct activities that allow students to get to know one another.
  • Create a Web-based instructional service site that offers advice about the use of classroom instructional techniques, development of course outlines, and pedagogical strategies such as collaborative learning and group discussion models that can help emphasize and encourage civil discourse.
  • Support community mentorship programs and sponsor campus educational and social events where the entire campus community can participate 
and learn.
  • Provide time for students and employees to engage in community or public service initiatives.
  • Periodically administer a campuswide climate survey to evaluate attitudes about campus life.

Finally, fostering civility on campus requires ongoing attention and training as each new class of students and new faculty and staff join the community. Veteran students and employees likewise will benefit from reinforcement of ideals and expectations regarding respect and civil behavior and discourse. In addition to general staff training and student orientation sessions on the topic, consider incorporating a variety of events and inviting a series of speakers for workshops, lectures, and forums throughout the year to challenge everyone’s thinking and test opinions and attitudes regarding their own role and responsibility in advancing a culture of civility.

JUDY ROOKSTOOL, author of Fostering Civility on Campus (Community College Press, 2007), is retired from the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, California. Rookstool previously served as coordinator of the Teaching and Learning Center at Evergreen Valley College, supporting faculty and staff professional development, and as a student academic and personal counselor at San Jose City College.

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