Rules of engagement: Helping students develop skills of professionalism and respect

Breakfast Club 1985

Over the last few years, an increasing amount of my time has been spent discussing with students what is considered common courtesy or respectful behavior. Topics range from proper email correspondence to instructors, professional greetings, conflict, and bullying. Two majors issues have been learning how to disagree without being disagreeable and properly handling disappointment. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entailed Wanted: High-Character Student which argued that the “selfie generation isn’t so selfless, valuing achievement and happiness over caring for others.” There is a tendency to be self-focused with a blatant disregard for others and often guidelines.

For example, a student stormed in my office demanding that additional evening courses be scheduled to accommodate the working adult. The young woman pointed out that the university is a company and therefore has the responsibility to meet the needs of its customers. Of course, I made every attempt to explain the complexities of adding a course, especially since the semester began in a week. Unfortunately, the chance of adding a course was slim but not impossible. I further explained that the head of the department was ultimately the decision-maker, and I had no control over the matter. After several minutes of debating (not pleading) her case the student reluctantly left my office but yelled, “Thanks for nothing” as she stormed down the hallway.


Ordinarily an encounter such as this would not bother me because sadly, irate students who either do not respect or care about boundaries have become commonplace. Today’s students view themselves as “customers” and as such feels that the client is always right. I do understand the challenges current students face trying to find a work-school-life balance. Factor in mounting student debt, a steady rise in tuition and a less than ideal class schedule can lead to a mental breakdown. Personally, I worked a full and part-time job while earning a masters and doctorate, so I understand the frustration and pressure.

What was most concerning was the sense of entitlement. The student felt comfortable barging in my office, arguing, and hurling insults in an attempt to get her point across. At that moment, I am sure I was viewed as the enemy or the person blocking progress but in any case, there is a level of professionalism and respect that must be practiced. I am reminded of a line from the 2004 movie Troy. King Priam said to Achilles, the man who murdered his son, “You are my enemy tonight, but even enemies can show respect.”


I wondered if colleges and universities had placed so much emphasis on student academic success that the importance of “respect and professionalism” had been neglected. The current generation, Millennials ( individuals born between the years 1982) have been criticized for being self-centered, too dependent, lacking skills of conflict resolution, unable to communicate face-to-face effectively, failing to adhere to personal boundaries and not working well under stress.

Of course, we can easily say the cause is an over-exposure to technology or overly protective guardians, referred to as helicopter or black-hawk parents. I think the issue is broader and more complex. The discourse can also be the result of generational differences. Currently, four generations, Silent Generation, Baby-Boomers, Gen X and Millennials occupy college campuses and the workplace. Each generation possess very different traits and characteristics which can cause friction if not properly managed. Differences are seen in social interaction, work ethics, style of communication, use of technology, problem-solving and self-perception.


Is it not one of the responsibilities of post-secondary institutions to help students development professional and social skills that will make them not only good workers but good citizens as well. The burden of higher education is not solely to ensure that students develop the skill-set needed for the workplace but also the verbal and nonverbal skills of social interaction and communication. Simply put, how to be professional and show respect. I created a list that my first-year freshman students discuss on the first day of class.

Rules of Professional Engagement:

1.When communicating with professionals, i.e., faculty, administrators,etc., whether face-to-face, telephone, email, etc., be precise and concise in your statements. Provide specific details, complete thoughts, and any other vital information.

2. Always use titles (Mr. Mrs, Miss, Dr. Professor, etc.) unless otherwise granted permission not to do so. It is a sign of respect and courtesy.

3.Temper tantrums are expected from children (adolescents), not college students. You can scream, yell, cry, make demands, and hurl threats. I will not be bullied. In most cases this type of behavior hinders process, makes a bad impression of you and is counter-productive.

4.Instructors are not your Facebook friends, buddies, or colleagues so don’t get too familiar with them. They are friendly but not your friends. Their role is to serve as a support system and a resource.

5.Your words should be your bond. If you do not value them, WHY SHOULD I.

6. Always start off a mistake with a “sincere apology” instead of an excuse. Starting off with an excuse worsens the situation.

7. Be prepared to face the consequence of your actions or choices, whether positive or negative. You can control your actions but not the consequences.

8. Everyone will not get an “A” for effort. Sometimes you get what you deserve (whatever that may be).

8. A “hello” and “thank you” goes a long way when conducting business. Be gracious even at times when you are not.

9. Speak slowly and express clear thoughts. Most of us did not major in speed reading or listening.

10. You are your “brand.” How you act, dress, speak, and conduct business speak volumes about your character. Every interaction leaves an impression and footprint of you.

11. Learn how to “respond” instead of “react.”

12. Become a good “active listener.” It’s not always about what you say but how well you listen; whether you agree or disagree.

13. It will not always be about you!! As much as you think that the world revolves around your issues, it does not and will not.

14. Your life is not over because you did not get the praise you expected!!!! Suck it up, move on, and work harder.

15. Dress like you came to an institution of higher learning, not the dance club!!! Yes, you are being judged by the way you dress.

16. If your instructor is in conversation with someone else, please be patient, don’t interrupt or hover around. It is rude, inappropriate, and disrespectful to the instructor and their guest.