Sit on them until Thanksgiving!

As a young teacher some of the worst words of advice I ever received was from a veteran teacher at my very first teacher meeting.   He took me aside and told me in a super serious tone that what I needed to do on the first day of school is make the rules very strict and don’t let up until Thanksgiving break!  He stressed to me, that if I do otherwise it is impossible to get those kids back in line. 

Not only is this terrible advice it demonstrates some flawed thinking around classroom management. I have to admit — I took that bad advice to be unforgiving until Thanksgiving break and it was not effective.  I labored over my classroom rules and really put some time into them and I had crafted some awesome rules, they were simple, they were laminated, posted everywhere and I even got into the habit of using the numbers when correcting some of my students.  I would say things like this “Mr. Smith are we dangerously close to violating rule #3 today?”

This seemed to work with the majority of my students most of the time  However, there were always a few who liked to challenge those posted rules.  Who would just act up to act up….and then — I finally had a student who gave me some insight into “why.”  I called him out into the hallway to discuss rule #2 (talking when the teacher was talking) and asked him why?  And his response made me rethink my approach to class rules. He simply responded “why not…it is kinda fun.”  He went on to point out that in each of his classes the rules are similar but all a bit different.  In some of his classes,  he is allowed to chew gum or wear his hat or go to the bathroom multiple times.  He was not trying to be rude or disrespectful.  He was simply being honest that he liked the diversion, the attention, the stoppage of instruction.

At the end of that year, I took down all my laminated rules and tossed them in the trash and developed a better way to manage my classroom.  It occurred to me that all of my students have been attending the institution call “school” since the age of 5.  They are all well aware of how to behave so why did I feel so compelled to write them down and display them?  Why did I spend an entire day or days reviewing these rules?

So I simply shifted from rules to expectations.  I expected that kids know how act in “school,” so no need to have a set of rules for my class.  We had an expectation of behavior.  We all know how to do “school” so let’s get started.  This changed the entire dynamic in my classroom.  I no longer spent any valuable class time with my rules or enforcing my rules.  In my class we simply had no rules at all — only understood expectations.

This is very similar to situations we as adult find ourselves in all the time.  We have understood expectations around going out to dinner, shopping, attending church, funerals, weddings etc…no one has to take any amount of time before any of those events to review the rules…we all understand the expectations for behavior because in each of the above examples we have social norms associated with them.  School is no different — it also contains a strong set of social norms that all kids understand without reminders, threats and large laminated posters.

My classroom simply relied on those already established social norms. Certainly, you had disturbances — that comes with the territory and you still have to deal with students misbehavior in the classroom but the biggest difference they are not my rules.  It is the social norm the student is violating — the understood expectation around school.  It becomes way less personal — because it is not about you as the teacher — it is about the students failure to follow social norms. The other students quickly squash 99% of the bad behavior just like we as adults would squash the behavior of another adult violating a time honored social norm at a wedding or funeral.

Students know how to behave at school and more schools need to spend way less time creating and posting their personal classroom rules but instead simply rely on the already established social norms of “school” and simply have those expectations of behavior and get on with the business of teaching.


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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