Developing strong character
In teaching behavior for everyday use, Mary Ann Harris has set high goals, and she's been rewarded.
BY MARY MONTAGUE SIKES SPECIAL TO THE DAILY PRESS
Published January 27, 2005
Not only are children at West Point Elementary School working hard for academic success, they're learning to use good manners in the classroom and everyday life.
"I set high expectations, both academically and socially," said Mary Ann Harris, a teacher at West Point Elementary for the past 18 years.
Harris, who instructs fourth- and fifth-grade pupils, has been involved for the past five years with teaching manners for an end-of-school-year fifth-grade formal dinner. Jane Copland and Nelson Harris, also fifth-grade teachers, work on planning details for the event with Harris.
The first year for the fifth-grade dinner was the year when West Point Middle School opened, Harris said. That made the fifth-graders the oldest pupils in the school.
"It's been exciting to see the children's response," Harris said with a smile. "They surprise us. Their whole demeanor changes - the student becomes a little adult. Some children, you hardly recognize. They get their hair done, and they dress up."
Harris said she never saw a child misbehave at one of the dinners. "We are exposing all the students to West Point's high standards. The children seem to meet these standards."
The importance of the first impression is emphasized in Harris' teaching. She shows the children the importance of dressing appropriately, whether they're going to the beach or to a museum.
"When you require children to dress appropriately, their behavior changes," she said.
Harris calls it "dressing up and growing up."
Part of the preparation for the year-end class dinner is teaching table manners, as well as instructing the children on how to have conversation at the dinner table. "They are reminded of the proper conversation with people they know, don't know and with adults," Harris said.
They have practice sessions on what to say, and Harris is gratified when she hears some of the children use what they've studied as they converse. They also learn which fork to use and when they should start eating.
At the beginning of the 2004-05 school year, West Point Schools Superintendent Jane Massey told staff members that one of this year's goals was to promote and integrate character education into the curriculum.
"Seize the moment to teach respect, responsibility, honesty, work ethic and other values as listed in our mission statement," she said.
This year, the school system is adding a dimension to the character-education program by focusing on social skills. This will "help students become more socially savvy in life," Massey said. "These skills will help students in getting and keeping jobs and in business, social and personal relationships."
Harris said social manners extended to field trips and assemblies and for guest speakers. "Every year, we get compliments on student behavior outside of school," she said. "The fourth- and fifth-grade behavior always has been recognized on field studies as being some of the best."
Harris stresses to the children that they're ambassadors for the school. She and other teachers talk about character education. They teach the children that respect and trust are vital parts of growing into responsible adults. Part of the school's character-development program is zero tolerance for bullying. "Character education makes a difference in children's lives - how they perceive other people and how they are perceived," Harris said.
"As part of the revised and expanded program, we hope to extend the etiquette-preparation dinners that Ms. Harris started to other grades, beginning with the sixth grade this year," Massey said.