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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Back to School: Rules and Routines in the Classroom

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

I admit it. I allowed students to chew gum in class. Why? I chewed gum. I have a throat that tends to dry up mid-morning. Gum helps.

The point is that if you have a rule, you have to follow it yourself or the kids will question you, and worse, lose respect. No food allowed in the classroom? And you have a Starbucks blueberry scone every morning that you eat during class? Just saying. I learned from experience. (The beauty of teaching 16- and 17-year-olds: They don't often hold back their opinions.) Being a model for what we expect is at times inconvenient and exhausting but it comes with the job.

Follow Through

Rules have consequences, and routines have reminders. For me, that meant far less rules and many more routines and procedures.

Once you make a rule, you have to stick to it. Students will expect a warning, a second warning, and then a consequence. A rule cannot be treated like a routine ever. If a classroom rule is, for example, Be On Time, then when a student walks in 22 seconds late, we can't say, "I reminded you yesterday about being tardy." We have to say, "This is a warning and a consequence will follow." And then, a consequence has to follow if they walk in two days later two seconds late.

All the other students are watching and expecting the follow through. If we just sigh, and mumble something under our breaths and let it slide, students will not see this as a rule. For this reason, we need to be incredibly selective when choosing that small handful of rules.

Choosing Routines to Emphasize

There will be procedures and routines that will take several seconds to go over and then others that are more in-depth. The ones that take extra effort to explain and model are often those that are borderline rules, like getting out of your seat.

You will want to address all scenarios for getting out of one's seat: sharpening a pencil, getting supplies or a tissue, turning in work, etc. I always told students, "If you're up, you are on a mission," that way, it sets it up nicely if you see a student wandering a bit or stopping at a classmate's desk for an off-topic chat, to ask, "What's your mission?" (This serves as a gentle reminder. Remember, the key word here is reminder, not consequence.)

There isn't really a limit to how many routines and procedures you have, but you will need to make sure that each one is clear to every learner in your room that first week of school.

Transparency

Be it a rule or routine, kids have to know what it looks like and examples Day One. If a rule is a general, all-encompassing one such as, Be Respectful to All, you will have to give numerous examples of what this looks like -- and doesn't look like (regardless the age of the students).

Have the class brainstorm examples and you add a few yourself. No name-calling, putdowns, and touching others will definitely come up. Students always brainstorm things beyond what we can imagine, so it's important that they are part of this process. It also gives student ownership and a keener understanding of the rule for the class collectively.

Every time we decide to involve students in the decision-making or discovery process in the classroom, it takes considerably longer. We are often tempted just to give them the information. But exploring examples of what the rules and routines look like together will have big pay off the entire school year.

The Ultimate Goal

When teachers are together, we often spend most of our time talking not about classroom management, but about effective teaching. We can't help it, being that our goal is to be the most effective teachers we can be. When we are effective, the majority of kids are learning and getting what they need, goals and objectives are achieved, and we teachers feel an incredible sense of accomplishment.

Here's an interesting short quiz that rates your teaching effectiveness and comes from education author and speaker, Harry Wong. His book, The First Days of School, is a popular tome in our profession and offers wonderful strategies for effective teaching and setting up community in the classroom the beginning of the year. I think it's safe to say that schools and districts across the country have handed this book to countless new teachers. (For further conversation on rules, routines and effective teaching, join this discussion group at Edutopia.)

In considering these crucial first weeks of school, what methods for effectively building classroom community and setting up rules and routines have worked best for you and your students? Please share!

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