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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teachers Need to Follow Their Own Rules

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Somebody recently said to me, "I can't believe they way they misbehave and the lack of respect they show. They talk on their phones, text, and talk while I talk, don't listen to each other, come in late, leave early and have no patience for those who disagree."

Who is this person talking about?

  • A teacher talking about her students?
  • A principal talking about her faculty?
  • An in-service presenter talking about teachers attending the training?
  • A college professor of education talking about her class of pre-service teachers?

The sad truth is that you don't know. Too many students, faculties, audiences, and education students all behave the same way -- not all individuals, of course, but several individuals within each group are culpable. I remember once giving an in-service training session in a city in northern Ohio. The participants sat at tables, and the five men at one table were all reading the newspaper during the training. Normally, I am not bothered by participants' behaviors when I train in schools. Some are learning while knitting, doodling or softly talking to their neighbors. And if they are not learning, there is nothing I can do to force them. That table of men particularly bothered me because I felt they were setting a terrible example to the others. It turned out that they were all principals. What a terrible message they sent to their faculties.

Behavior Follows Values

To be honest, had cell phones been invented while I was a seventh grade teacher, I might have been tempted to text during a boring faculty meeting. But not any more. Those of you who are familiar with my work or have read any of my recent posts know how strongly I believe that we behave according to our values. Sidney B. Simon, my professor in my doctoral program and one of the developers of Values Clarification, taught me many years ago that your choices of behavior are among the best indicators of your true values. If this is so, then what do we learn about the values of pre-service and in-service teachers who violate their own rules?

Students Understand a Lot More Than We Realize

Many behavior problems that teachers face in their classrooms come from students who quickly see whether or not their teachers value appropriate behavior. The most disruptive students are often the ones who best intuitively understand when teachers are hypocritical as they try to enforce rules that they obviously don't follow themselves.

Shouldn't Adults Have Different Behavior Standards Than Children?

When I raise this issue with educators, I often hear, "But we're adults. Rules are different for us. We can drive, drink, and smoke, and kids can't." Not true -- these are not rules as much as they are privileges. And if you want the right to behave differently than children, you can do so. Just get a job where you don't influence children.

Two Behavior Changes

I recommend two changes for those educators who need them:

  1. Follow your own rules in all professional situations. These include your own classrooms, meetings, trainings, and courses. Be on time, dress professionally, put your smart phones and newspapers away, and don't disrupt others. One other recommendation: if you want to have any friends, never ask a question as time is running out.

  2. Be a good role model for your students. I once sat in a principal's office in Montgomery, Alabama, a place where I was treated with utmost respect and hospitality, while a parent was called in because her son was in trouble for hitting. She was a very large woman who strutted weirdly over to her son and slapped him very hard twice on his face. Then she put her hands on her hips and said, "Who taught you to hit?" I would have said, "Maybe it was you," but she was bigger than me.

Being a good role model means never doing anything to a child that you don't want them to do to others. Children learn to be adults by watching adults. Think carefully about the way you intervene with student misbehavior and ask yourself, "Do I want this child saying or doing what I am about to say or do to another child or adult?" If you yell, "Get out," imagine that student yelling the same thing to another child on the playground.

It's hard to work with children, and our professional standards are high. However, if a rule is too hard for you to follow, then think of how hard it must be for a child to follow it.

How do you consciously teach by example? Please share in the comments section below.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Abi's picture
Abi
English Teacher

Pamela-

That was not a very polite response.
I am not asking them in that if they say no I will not access my phone in an urgent situation. I believe that if I show them respect, they will show it back to me. It's been working for me for the eleven years I have been teaching. So, I am clearly doing something right. I am not making myself their equal. I don't ask them to go to the bathroom nor do I need permission to speak in class. But, if there is a rule that seems to the students as if it falls equally on teacher and student, why not make them feel like people and show some respect? I am not taken advantage of nor am I seen as weak with this approach. I have been openly told my students that I am mindful and respectful of who they are and I can guarantee you that they are more receptive to the education I have to impart because of it.

Tracy Gill's picture
Tracy Gill
7th grade history and language arts teacher in Federal Way, WA

I think that it's important to model to children that if you work hard and make the right decisions certain privileges are conferred upon you. There are definitely different rules for adults and children. I have worked hard, raised a family, earned several degrees, and I should be able to operate under rules that are different than the rules that are applied to twelve-year-old students. It's not about "do as I say, not as I do." It's about the rewards of adulthood and hard work. Children should be taught to understand this.

You say, "And if you want the right to behave differently than children, you can do so. Just get a job where you don't influence children." I disagree. Children are going to have to learn to operate in a world in which they can choose to drink, drive, smoke, do drugs, party, etc. Shouldn't they have a role model who has made similar decisions but is still a positive role model? For example, I have tattoos. Does this make me irresponsible in spite of the fact that I am educated, have a rewarding career, and a wonderful home life? Most would say that's the definition of personal success. I also drink alcohol when circumstances permit, as will most of my students when they are old enough. I argue that it's a good thing to see an adult with tattoos who enjoys a martini or two on Friday evenings who is successful and happy. We're not all made from the same material and to suggest such is detrimental to many children. They need role models of all types.

Jessica White's picture
Jessica White
2nd grade Texas

I was with you on everything EXCEPT the part where you say "I would have said, "Maybe it was you," but she was bigger than me."
I know this is meant to be funny...meant to be because It's true there are a lot of people who think fat people are funny and okay to make the brunt of jokes. I guess even someone as educated as yourself thinks that's okay. It's one thing to tote the notion of "follow your own rules", but then to make fun of someone based on their size - her implied abusiveness rubbing off on her child was clear without mentioning her "largeness" or weird strut - seems to make this whole article hypocritical. Would you then see it okay for your students to demean another simply because they are fat? I find it interesting that Edutopia would support an article like this in the "Social and Emotional Learning". Perhaps Edutopia too believes fat people are okay to be made the joke. Very eye-opening indeed.

C Houston's picture

I did not get the impression that the author was making fun of the parent's size. I do feel that a counselor should have been present as well as the principal and resource officer. Where I work, the parent would not have been allowed to strike her child on school grounds without repercussions.

Johnny's picture
Johnny
Adjunct Math Instructor

Then why did the author even mention it in the first place? If it was an average sized woman, would he spend time to state that much? No, he wouldn't, nor would he go even further to say that she strutted weirdly...clearly he was making fun of the woman, which he didn't need to do. Or to put it another way, suppose I was writing about you, and stated you were large and strutted weirdly...would you still think I wasn't taking a low blow at how much you weigh? I would never do such a thing because it is unnecessary- the woman's actions were the problem here and the author should have stuck with that.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Blogger

Sorry if using the word large offended anyone. I never said fat. She was about six two and not very fat at all. Before tall people feel insulted, I was showing the contrast between the size of the child to his mother, which made hitting all the more dramatic. I, myself, am very overweight, and would never insult anyone else who is.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Blogger

Hi Tracy,
If you think it's okay to have tattoos, then have them, just don't tell children that tattoos are wrong or bad. If you think lying is wrong then don't lie to your students. If you require work done on time, then give it back on time.Yes, adults have more privileges as we should have, but we cannot teach values and then violate them. I stand my my statement that if you want to violate your own values or the behaviours you demand of children, then you are better off with a job without kids.

Jessica White's picture
Jessica White
2nd grade Texas

Your words painted a very different picture for me than tall however when you added "strutted weirdly" and "bigger than me" with a woman who was "very large". I concede you never did use the word fat in your article and was my assumption based on what I read. And we all know about assumptions. :) I believe that you were not trying to offend. I do enjoy your other articles and strategies on behavior management.

Tracy Gill's picture
Tracy Gill
7th grade history and language arts teacher in Federal Way, WA

I agree with what you're saying here, but in your article you state, "And if you want the right to behave differently than children, you can do so. Just get a job where you don't influence children." Obviously children aren't permitted to have tattoos or drink alcohol, so what it sounds like you're saying is that if you're an adult and you engage in these behaviors, you should not be working with children because you are operating under a set of behaviors that children aren't allowed to engage in.
[quote]Hi Tracy,

If you think it's okay to have tattoos, then have them, just don't tell children that tattoos are wrong or bad. If you think lying is wrong then don't lie to your students. If you require work done on time, then give it back on time.Yes, adults have more privileges as we should have, but we cannot teach values and then violate them. I stand my my statement that if you want to violate your own values or the behaviours you demand of children, then you are better off with a job without kids.[/quote]

Johnny's picture
Johnny
Adjunct Math Instructor

Dr. Richard Curwin In that case I owe you an apology. In the modern vernacular large usually means overweight, so I think that is where the confusion originates; hence, my initial criticism. Either way I agree with you that one cannot hit a child while saying they should not hit another, and your experience of such a parent is a perfect illustration of that.

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