When I started teaching, I was incredibly traditional in terms of classroom management and discipline. In those early years, a clear code of conduct was reassuring. For infraction X, there was always consequence Y. It gave me a simple if inflexible rubric through which to discover my position in the class and develop a degree of comfort and ease as captain of the ship. As a new teacher, I was thankful for the clarity and certainty this approach offered—and I am sure other new educators feel the same.
However, while I was clearing my credential, working with mentor teachers to reflect on my practice, and finding out how real students differed from theoretical ones, I also spent long hours after school with the speech and debate team reading philosophy and theory and talking about innovative alternatives for national defense, natural resource allocation, and, of course, education.
That led me to some uncomfortable conclusions. Although I encouraged my students to think critically and challenged myself to develop new methods of instruction, the actual conduct of the class seemed at odds with all that. I wanted my students to do more than just follow rules handed down to them. I wanted them to understand why those rules exist, and be willing to interrogate ones that didn’t seem valuable, meaningful, or useful.
So I gradually abolished formal management protocols. Away went the rules about bathroom policies, eating in the classroom, and what defines appropriate behavior in a traditional classroom. Instead, I theorized about the broad, underlying principles that would define the field within which we could have a productive learning community.
To be honest, I was terrified. I was worried that if I started to dismantle my power, the class would devolve into chaos.
But I also knew my students: They were thoughtful and reflective, kind and observant, willing to take intellectual risks when they felt supported and safe.
So we started with first principles—it’s wise to start with a simple framework—identifying core premises from which we could build a classroom community. These depend on the teacher’s values, the school culture, and the needs of the students. In my case, I derived them from ideas of agency and social equity, and let the students extrapolate from there.
Next, we proceeded to norm that behavior. I simply took the time to comment on how particular contributions, habits, and behaviors were either in concert with or contrary to the core principles, with the idea that students would begin to mirror that level of depth and awareness. I made sure to offer opportunities, usually at the end of class, to reflect not just on what learning took place, but on what community standards were missing, newly established, or reaffirmed. For example, without a school-wide policy about bathroom usage during class, and after I expressed my own disinterest in regulating bodily functions, we started a conversation about how to solve the problem, deriving community standards from it. Students recognized that that if they weren’t in the room, they couldn’t be engaged or prepared, and staying in the bathroom wasn’t really respectful if other students needed to go as well. One student suggested that it was impossible to take intellectual risks if you were in the bathroom all the time.
The same approach applies to homework, often considered a non-negotiable in high school classrooms. In my class, it’s a chance to demonstrate student agency and experiment with what we’ve learned in class. If a student fails to do it, the absence is its own punishment—I don’t need to double down with teacher-driven shame. If a student tells me they haven’t done their homework, my response is, “That’s fine, you’re all right, but why not?” From there, I can respond in a more personalized way and unearth how to best help.
Metacognition and Student Responsibility
The big insight here is that using this model, every class starts to operate at two levels simultaneously. In the foreground, class proceeds as usual, with the teacher and students engaging in productive work. In the background, there is a kind of running metacognitive discussion that is always evaluating behavior based on these underlying principles. Sometimes, this underlying dynamic breaks through to the surface, and we dedicate valuable class time to equally worthwhile conversations about, for example, the difference between a compliant student and a respectful one, or about how teacher-student relationships ought to be reciprocal.
I have four of our foundational classroom principles posted on the walls:
- Be respectful to yourself because it sets the context for being able to participate in a community; to others because it is hard to be a student and everyone’s struggles merit your respect; and to the teacher because although it is a position of authority, the teacher should also be vulnerable and learning.
- Be engaged, because merely being present in the classroom does not necessarily qualify as participation, and a truly pluralistic community requires all voices.
- Be prepared, because informed conversation requires prepared members, and preparation transcends just the work that is assigned—and is closer to deep thought, sincere skepticism, and a general willingness to interrogate assumptions.
- Be courageous, because learning requires acknowledging that there are things we don’t know, skills we lack, and ways in which we might still be foolish—which is a scary prospect for everyone in the class, teacher included.
Of course, these are only my principles. A case can be made for any number of others, provided they focus on the conditions for learning, rather than on controlling the minutiae of student behavior.
The reason I find this strategy better than rules is because it teaches students to become active participants in the formation of a community. Rules alone tend to condition the students to become dogmatic followers, while broader imperatives guide them to be critical and reflective participants.
A concession, though: This approach is expensive in terms of time. It requires space and resources and lots of student-teacher conversations. When a student violates the underlying principles or acts in a way that is either self-destructive or hurtful to others, time must be taken to unpack the behavior in a way that respects the community and its principles and doesn’t alienate the individual. That’s a very sophisticated conversation for a high school student to have.
And an admission, too: When I first opted for this method, I didn’t really think it would work. I imagined it as an interesting experiment. But it did work. Not just with my high-performing debate kids or my AP English classes, but with all of them. My students who were burned out and checked out. Those who coasted by with Cs. Freshmen and seniors. Even my English language development students, many of whom have been in the country for less than six months, bought in to the method and grew. They all wanted to feel that their contributions mattered to the community. And if this alternative approach can at least prepare them for a more open, more pluralistic society, then I will take the time and energy it requires from me. That would be a worthy return on investment.