School Rules vs Expectations

Sometimes it just hits you like a hammer.  In 1997, after an exhausting year as an assistant principal at a medium sized high school I sat in in my office and stared at all the items I had collected throughout the year.  I had at about 11 Sony disc players, at least 23 baseball caps, about 8 pagers, three very inappropriate T-shirts and various other miscellaneous items.  All the things confiscated by me as I enforced the school rules.  I surveyed the items and remembered the confrontations some of these items caused and the ruckus from parents, students and staff.  It was the first time I wondered if these rules were really necessary.  Most of the time I had confiscated those very items in the hallway or in study hall and not during a class. Kids for the most part are respectful and that was true in 1997, and its true today.

Some rules are simply leftovers from a different era.  In 2014, we laugh at pagers as we have relaxed rules on cell phones and even encourage use of smart phones in school.  Wearing a hat in the building is a leftover from a different time when it was expected that men remove their hats upon entering a building —  in 2014, I see plenty of people who wear hats indoors without impunity.

What was I doing? Did these rules make sense or was it really about control and compliance?

Schools are full of rules.  Rules are often the dominant feature of a school.  You have classroom rules, rules around privileges, different rules for the library, or the rules for usage of electronic devices, rules for attendance, rules for driving, rules, rules and more rules.  It seems the one thing schools are really good at doing is making rules and enforcing rules….but what happens when the rules become more important than the students we serve? What happens when the rules themselves have a life of their own and infringe on the mission of schooling?

I cringe at least once a year when I hear about some school district somewhere that has expelled a Kindergartner for bringing a weapon to school.  I don’t care what the circumstances — expelling a Kindergartner because you have to enforce the districts zero tolerance policy makes zero sense. Anyone who is around Kindergarten children knows that if that student brought a weapon to school the more appropriate response is children services with a huge spotlight on the kids environment and his negligent parents not the punishment of the child.

I spent large amounts of time as a teacher, principal and superintendent pondering the impact of simply not punishing kids for breaking some arcane rule.  The pressure and inertia the system places on those in the position of authority is immense.  We use legal terms like “precedent” as if not punishing a student for lack of a hall pass will somehow cause mutiny in the ranks.  It is truly why we see that kindergartner get expelled.  The rule trumps our own common sense.  The rule becomes more important than the child.

I have always felt we get this rules thing wrong.  We spend so much time focusing on what kids cannot do that we fail to mention what they can do and we waste precious learning time when we are overly focused on control and compliance.   Rules have a place and serve a purpose but they cannot not dominate the culture of the school.  Schools overly focused on the rules for the rules sake lose the humanity and compassion sometimes needed when dealing with kids.

I have tried to imagine a school that focuses on expectations and not rules.  Imagine if we simply had reasonable expectations for kids and not a codified, board approved set of rules with draconian consequences for failure to follow?   If our focus was learning…..not control and compliance.  If we simply stopped spending inordinate amounts of times on rules, rule development, rule enforcement, rule committees, and rule breakers.  Imagine just for a moment if we just stopped wasting our most precious resource — time.

Kids don’t need carrots and sticks, kids don’t need fear of punishment, kids don’t lack morality, and Kids intuitively know how to behave in social settings.  Kids need to know and understand our expectations around behavior but do not need a tome handed to them each year with all the things they are not allowed to do in school.  We need to capture all this wasted effort, energy and time spent on rules and use it where it might actually do some good…..

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About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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