Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 18, 2000
Legislator calls for compulsory good manners toward teachers
By Dennis Chaptman, Journal Sentinel staff
Madison - Schoolroom smart alecks and class clowns, beware.
If a state legislator has her way, a new law would polish all of you sassy little brats into Emily Post prodigies who address your teachers by proper courtesy titles instead of snotty monikers.
Rep. Carol Owens (R-Oshkosh) said her proposal would instill some old-fashioned manners in children who may have lost respect for their instructors.
"I drafted this legislation to help restore respect in the classroom," Owens said. "Some kids, not the majority, have lost a sense of showing respect for adults."
The proposed law would require students to address their teachers with courtesy titles, such as Mr. Smith, Mrs. Wilson and Ms. Palmer.
The legislation says if children in kindergarten through 12th grade do not use the courtesy titles, they should refer to teachers as "ma'am" or "sir." Owens said her bill is modeled after similar legislation in Louisiana and Alabama.
But an official of Wisconsin's largest teachers union criticized the idea, saying that compelling children to parrot courtesy titles would do little to encourage truly respectful behavior.
"The concept of respect in schools cannot be solved by having children say, 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, sir,' " said Katie Stout, director of instruction and professional development for the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Stout said Owens' idea is simplistic.
"Learning respect begins in the home and in larger society," Stout said. "Society has spent the last decade or two bashing teachers. Why should we be surprised when children don't show respect?"
The bill leaves disciplinary measures for students who violate the law up to local school districts. The measure says that punishment may not be in the form of suspension or expulsion, but does encourage school officials to use community service projects to reinforce the rules.
The requirement would be gradually phased in each year until the 2007-'08 school year.
"This proposal could be easily incorporated into existing codes of conduct," Owens said. "And the use of community service projects would provide positive reinforcement to help students show the respect deserved for teachers."
Owens' proposal is unnecessary, said Nancy Walsh-Boeder, a teacher at McFarland Elementary School in suburban Madison who developed and published a curriculum based on character-building and respect.
Walsh-Boeder said local school officials - and not legislators - should be able to determine their own needs when it comes to respect.
"I don't think that a state law is necessary," she said. "I don't think that respect is something that you mandate. Respect is earned. Children learn to respect adults when adults respect them."
The curriculum developed by Walsh-Boeder and another McFarland teacher, Beverly Schmid, emphasizes social skills and features monthly themes including responsibility and respect.
"In the last eight to 10 years, we've seen more children coming to school without the social skills to react appropriately with others," Walsh-Boeder said. "We teach the children to respect themselves."
Ken Cole, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, also questioned the need for a state law mandating that schoolchildren use courtesy titles.
"Why would you bother with a state law on such a thing?" he asked. "Even if a local school board passed a policy saying all teachers had to be referred to this way, teachers and administrators would see it as micro-managing. This is an issue that is up to teachers."
Stout said if the measure were ever adopted, it would be doomed to fail in the classroom.
"We certainly aren't interested in following the lead of Louisiana and Alabama on educational issues," she said. "The potential is to raise cynicism in children. We can get children to say the words, but that doesn't mean they will respect their teachers, parents or their schools."
But, Owens said, her measure would sow the seeds of respectful behavior starting in kindergarten.
"My goal is to teach kids respect from the beginning of their education," she said, "and in the process, bring politeness and courtesy back into society as a whole."