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VOL. 128 | NO. 192 | Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Social Graces

Etiquette protocol delivers life lessons for Westminster students

ERINN FIGG | Special to The Daily News

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For many teenagers, a multicourse meal can cause some consternation.

Kim Jorgensen with a ninth-grade protocol class at Westminster Academy. The class is mandatory for the school. It’s designed to help students master the complex rules of etiquette.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

All those forks, spoons, plates and glasses can seem daunting. Throw in some formal ballroom dancing after dessert, and the whole scene threatens to become a night of agonizing awkwardness.

Not for the students at Westminster Academy, however. The small K-12 Classical Christian school on Ridgeway Road includes a protocol course as a mandatory co-curricular activity for its seventh- through 12th-graders. And although the course is designed to help students master the often-complex rules of etiquette and, later, professional propriety, that’s not its primary purpose, said Andrew Smith, Westminster’s head of upper school.

“We’re not trying to promote some kind of antiquated formulaic approach to life that’s supposed to be good just because it’s old-fashioned or proper,” Smith said. “There’s value in our approach that goes way beyond that. It really comes down to serving others, to making sacrifices so others can feel more comfortable. If we’re going to teach kids how to be virtuous, we’ve also got to give them ways to execute what we’re teaching them.”

The course material progresses with each grade, with each level culminating in an event where students can use their newly learned skills. Seventh-graders learn good posture, spatial awareness, making introductions and the principles of seniority, gender and rank, all of which reinforce the virtues of honor, respect, discernment and even courage. The final event is a trip to a local museum or art gallery.

Eighth-graders learn basic table manners and how to navigate a formal dinner table, including the use of utensils, proper place settings, seating arrangements, the role of the hostess, excusing themselves from the table, and handling difficult food items. Meanwhile, they’re learning orderliness, respect and gratitude, and they put this new knowledge to the test during a formal afternoon tea hosted in a Westminster Academy parent’s home.

Etiquette moves into the modern age during the ninth-grade protocol course, which continues to focus on dinner and conversation etiquette – including tipping, topics to avoid in dinner conversation and making a toast – but also places a strong focus on technology etiquette, all the while highlighting the values of honor, stewardship and selflessness.

“We address questions such as, ‘How do you use a cellphone at a formal event – is there a proper way to use them, or do you put them away for the evening?’” Smith said. “That lesson also carries over into the business world. If I’m in a board meeting or collaborating with a colleague, I need to be present in that moment, not concerned with my smartphone.”

The school’s protocol instructors even emphasize the importance of picking an appropriate email address.

“It may be fun when you’re communicating with your friends, but when you’re sending professional correspondence, a wacky email address isn’t going to make the best impression,” Smith said.

The 10th- through 12th-grade protocol courses continue to polish hospitality and formal-event etiquette skills – incorporating aspects such as theater behavior; sending invitations, RSVPs and thank-you notes; and learning dress specifications. At these levels, the courses culminate in attending the Protocol Ball – Westminster’s version of the typical high school prom.

However, the 11th-grade course also places a strong emphasis on careers and preparing for them, including interview skills, learning the difference between business-formal and business-casual attire, and interview follow-ups. Students practice what they’ve learned during an interview with headmaster Peter Baur.

“Throughout all of it, we continue to emphasize the value in the rules,” Smith said. “Taking those extra steps to do things correctly shows that you care. And doing these things and acting in a respectful, professional manner is a way to serve others and make them feel honored. Writing a thank-you note is expressing gratitude, and in doing so, the process makes you feel grateful – it fosters a sincere motive. It’s really all about serving others, not showing off your etiquette knowledge.”

Gassia Gerges, partner at Vaco Technology, a leading executive placement and job recruitment firm in Memphis, applauds this approach. She spends most of her days screening potential candidates for jobs and says it is often the attitude that differentiates someone in a pool of equally skilled hopefuls.

“We’re in a market right now where we have a surplus of candidates with an identical skill set,” she said. “The question is no longer who is the most qualified. The question is who, out of all these candidates, truly represents a committed person who is not so much coming into the interview asking what that company can do for them, but asking what they can do for that company. Someone who’s saying, ‘I’m here to make a difference in your organization – I want to help you meet your company objectives and add value to your growth.’”

Will Walker of Memphis, a Westminster Academy graduate and freshman at University of Mississippi, said he had heard about Westminster’s protocol courses throughout his lower-school years there. As an athlete, he and his friends didn’t really get it at first, he said.

“A lot of kids my age have a hard time seeing the purpose. But later we learned that the protocol course isn’t really about us; it’s extremely others-oriented,” he said. “At the Protocol Ball, my friends and I had a blast, although you start the night thinking, ‘This is a night for me and dressing up and looking good.’ But once you get there, you’re reminded that it’s actually not all about you. It’s about making sure your date is comfortable. It’s about respecting others through good manners. It’s about celebrating all the people around you.

“It’s something I’ll be able to take with me for the rest of my life.”

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