Rules, Rules, Rules

Okay.  This is a teaching blog.  And even though the idea paralyzes me, I’m supposed to write about TEACHING.

I’m considering revising my classroom rules for next year.  You know the drill.  You’re a teacher.  You’re supposed to have those babies posted, first day of school.  There are supposed to be five of them, for some reason.  They suggest order.  They instill fear or inspire learning utopia, or at the very least cover a bulletin board.

I’ve learned after nine years of teaching that classroom rules are largely symbolic.  I do think it’s important to set a tone for the year on the first day of school, and part of that should be discussing your rules.  But once the year begins and controlled chaos sets in my discipline system becomes flexible at best and arbitrary at worst, all under the guiding principle that one should do the right thing or suffer some sort of personal inconvenience.  Rules like “Come to class on time with your learning materials” seem to go without saying and are far from inspirational.  I want the rules to read more like a mantra.  To that end I’m taking out the red pen.

Following have been my classroom rules for the last couple of years:

  1. We never give up.
  2. We never put people down.
  3. We come to class on time with our learning materials.
  4. We use appropriate voice levels.
  5. We stay on task.

Sure, these are fine.  But after we talk about them the first week I rarely refer to them again (except for rule 2, which I have to revisit throughout the year).  This is what I’m considering for next year.  Note that not all of the following are my creations.  I’ll try to give credit as best I can.

  1. Be nice.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Don’t argue with the Ref.

Rules 1 and 2 are frequently used mottos in KIPP schools, but I think they poached them from Rafe Esquith.  Pithy and more important to me than anything else.  I also like rule 1 because the sign “Be nice or leave” is commonly found in bars and restaurants around New Orleans and I’m sure the kids are familiar with it.  If only it were that easy in the classroom.

I heard rule 3 from a presenter in a classroom management PD that we had to attend last year.  I wish I could remember the guy’s name.  I didn’t get much else from this presentation but I like the way he worded this concept.  It’s the only one of the three rules that reads slightly negative but I think it’s necessary.  I’m a little old school in that I believe that when an adult tells a sixth grader what to do or calls him out on bad behavior, there is no place for arguing or talking back.  As my dear friend, teaching superstar Jen Mickey used to put it, “When I say jump, you say ‘How high?'”  This only works if the adult is fair and has their ego in check.  Another caveat: I need to explain to my students that sometimes teachers make mistakes and it is okay to question them at the right time and place, in a respectful tone of voice.

I have known teachers, my friend Jen Mickey among them, who post no rules.  Their presence and the tone they set in their classrooms supersede rules.  Am I there yet?  If I have to ask, probably not.

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