It was the day before my first day teaching, and I had my syllabus finished. I was proud of it. Clear expectations, grading policies, and about 900 rules. My mentor, who made teaching look easy (great teachers always do), took one look at it and said, “Get rid of the rules.” I was confused—I thought that these rules made what to expect from my classroom clear. My mentor said, “Pick no more than three. And write them and discuss them, then enforce them. Otherwise, get rid of them. Let kids make decisions.”
I’ve deeply thought about that last part over the course of my career: Let kids make decisions. Twenty years later, I am a high school administrator tasked with enforcing rules every day. Let me be clear: Schools need rules to function, but they don’t have to be the focus. My school focuses on allowing students to make choices: It is a centerpiece of how we operate. And although kids don’t always make the right choices, often enough they do. An overreliance on rules, in either a classroom or an entire school, can limit the ability of students to grow and develop their decision-making skills.
Rulemaking in the classroom
Teachers employ a variety of strategies for classroom management, including the implementation of classroom rules. Some teachers develop these rules based on experiences they had as students, from their mentor teachers. In some cases, teachers allow students to develop classroom norms that clarify expectations and, as a by-product, define the do’s and don’ts of the classroom. Regardless of the methodology, the more specifically defined the rules, the less of an opportunity a student has to make a moral or ethical decision to break them.
General rules are better. These give students control over their own decisions but also allow a teacher to decide on a case-by-case basis. Here are three rules that pretty much every infraction you can think of violates—and these rules are also applicable to life outside of school.
Be prepared: This rule is important because it applies to every element of academic success. Students need to be prepared in school, in life beyond the classroom walls (including athletics and other extracurricular activities), and in life beyond high school, such as after school jobs.
Teachers who use this rule can have students develop the picture of a prepared student. This can include bringing all materials, completing assignments, getting ready to learn in a way that promotes success in the classroom, and anything else where preparedness is important. I would often refer to this rule before students broke it. For example, when I would make a reading assignment, I would paint a picture of how a prepared student would be the next day.
Be respectful: Respect is an important part of any classroom relationship. Whether it’s between the teacher and the student or peer-to-peer, relationships built on respect are ones that will last. Students all know the word, but modeling what respect looks like in a classroom is an important part of a teacher’s job. Debriefing throughout the year can help a teacher and the students understand more clearly how to respect others.
For example, when discussing a group project, respecting each other’s time by completing the individual tasks in advance can be a part of the conversation when the assignment is given. Likewise, students should learn that respecting themselves is an important lesson that involves practicing self-care.
Be on time: This particular rule is connected to being prepared and being respectful of the teacher’s and the other students’ time. It’s self-explanatory and applicable outside of school. When I was a high school teacher, my students knew that I meant it and that I started class immediately after the bell rang, so my actions backed up this rule as well.
Within these three rules, almost any other rule that a teacher can come up with could fit. They cover the many logistical rules, like turning things in late, getting work that was missed due to an absence, not speaking when someone else is speaking, and the many more rules that teachers have to manage their classrooms. With these broader rules, students can focus on the positives of these behavior guidelines rather than what not to do to get in trouble. The freedom within these rules lies in the teacher treating students more like adults than children.
Rules are important. I am certainly not advocating for no rules. However, when teachers and administrators view students as out to break the rules, it can have an impact on school culture.
Often schools are looking to enforce rules rather than looking to enhance freedoms and decision-making skills. When schools approach students from a rules-centered perspective, they will often try to catch students breaking the rules. This is very different from seeing and praising when the bulk of the student body makes the right decisions most of the time. Administrators and teachers can change the dynamic of the school’s culture by viewing their students as people who try to make the right decisions most of the time.
Schools should provide students with opportunities of choice and freedom. Unstructured time can be a great opportunity for students of all ages to practice good decision-making and, likewise, a great place for staff to praise good decision-making. Creating more opportunities in and out of the classroom for students to make decisions and feel free will promote the practice of doing the right thing.
In our school, students are given the benefit of the doubt. For example, on field day, students have freedom to choose among a variety of activities. They aren’t required to be at a specific place as they are during a normal school day, which gives students real freedom in a place where they may not feel free on a day-to-day basis.
When students do break the rules, it is our job as educators to teach them why their decision wasn’t the right one, how their decision impacted others or themselves, and how to make a better decision the next time. This gives students a chance to reflect on how they arrived at the wrong decision with an adult who is there to both counsel them and help them understand the consequences.