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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.


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

Helen Bird's picture

I model good behaviour. I remember the student's names and birthdays, the important events going on in their lives outside college. I ask to be called by my first name, not 'Miss' . I tell them I don't miss anything .... ;) I am kind and respectful to them all, and don't hold grudges. They know I have their best interests at heart and they respond to that. Emotional education is key to my approach.

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

Hi Samer,

Thank you for all you do at Edutopia.
I have an alternative view of the Golden Rule. After living in many parts of the world, I have found that there are too many things that others want done to them that I clearly do not want done to me.
I think that a better way to view it is to say, "Do unto others as they want done to them." And as for children in school I have published my own golden rule in my books and articles for over twenty years, "Do unto children as you want them to do onto others," Whatever we do to children they will do and the more often it is done to them, the more often they do it. A horrific statistic illustrates this point. About 95% of those who abuse others were abused as children. Let's do right unto children.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia

Ah yes, I've often heard that described as the Platinum Rule. Built into it is an innate respect for culture and personal belief, which I really appreciate it.

You make a very good point about children. Both for good and ill, children will learn from what's done to them.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

The most effective behavior management techniques mostly have nothing to do with Behavior management.

Usually an effective lesson plan, is an effective management technique. And the more that Instruction is differentiated and personalized (respecting the student) the more respect will be given in return to the teacher.

I guess the more the rules are flexed, the better they are followed. If that makes any sense. I also think it takes a certain kind of teacher to approach behavior management in this way.

Abi's picture
English Teacher


Here is my dilemma -

When I worked in summer camp last year, the younger staff were told that under no circumstances were they permitted to use their phones during the camp day. Adult staff, however, was permitted to because they have responsibilities including children of their own, as well as household related issues that come up.

While I very. very rarely use my phone in the classroom, there have been times where I was waiting for a doctor to return my call, or I was waiting for my child's teacher to get back to me about whether or not my child was sick and needed to be picked up early from school. These are all legitimate reasons to use a phone. But, students, especially younger ones in junior high school, don't always understand the difference between us (teacher) and them (student). If ever I need to leave my phone on the table in anticipation of a call, I explain to my students that it is urgent and I understand that the rule is that phones may not be used in the classroom, and so I kind of ask their permission: 'If it is okay with you, I would like to leave my phone on the table here because I am waiting for my son's doctor to return my call. Is that okay?'. Never once have my students 'not let me'. But, because I know that the younger students don't have their boundaries in check and might take advantage, I won't let them use their phone during class time, even if they provide an adequate excuse. I am worried it will set a precedent and I am worried that they will take advantage. That's not fair. Is it?

I guess the lesson to be learned is that when my phone is ever in use during class time, it does not go against my students' rules, I actually receive their permission for it and it shows them a level of respect that I think many other teachers ignore. But, when they use their phones in my class, it goes against my rules. Once they feel respect from me toward them, I think that they are more amenable to hearing my 'no' when it comes to them using their phones for whatever 'urgent' call they receive. They know that if I respect them, I wouldn't ignore their needs, but that maybe I have a reason for my decision. My teaching by example is not the use of the phone, but it is the understanding that my students are not puppets and they are people with needs and the need to be valued. They deserve the same respect that I deserve and by sharing with them why I need to use my phone and by including them in an issue that I face, they feel more connected and more respected.

The problem is that so many other teachers are not the role models that we wish them to be, and just as young children model behaviors they see and mimic the actions they witness, so do our students, no matter their age.

Pamela Chapman's picture
Pamela Chapman
Reading/ lang.Atrs ...PE..coach..Wellness coach ..Athletic Director..yearbo

Abi English teacher asks their permission ...lol..this is the problem ...THEY are not your equals ..And as for needing your cell for important calls the front office can still do that .I have relied on them for 25 years have not missed one yet...THEy think their calls are as important as yours ...don't you get that ..obviously not....

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