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Teachers Need to Follow Their Own Rules

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Somebody recently said to me, “I can’t believe the way they misbehave and the lack of respect they show. They talk on their phones, text, and talk while I talk, and they ignore each other, come in late, leave early, and have no patience for those who disagree.”

Who was this person, and who was he or she 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 his class of pre-service teachers?

The sad truth is you can’t tell. Too many students, faculties, and education students all behave the same way—not all individuals, of course, but it only takes several individuals within each group to be disruptive. 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’m not bothered by participants’ behavior when I train in schools. Some are learning while knitting, doodling, or softly talking to their neighbors. And if they’re not learning, there’s 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—they were all principals. What a terrible message they sent to their faculties.

Behavior Follows Values

To be honest, had cell phones existed while I was a seventh-grade teacher, I might have been tempted to text during a boring faculty meeting. But not anymore. 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 authors 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, 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.” 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 as well as meetings, trainings, and courses. Be on time, dress professionally, put your smartphones and newspapers away, and don’t disrupt others. One other recommendation: Never ask a question as time is running out—make sure your class ends on time.

  2. Be a good role model for your students. Never do 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’m about to say or do to another child or adult?” If you yell, “Get out,” imagine the 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, think of how hard it must be for a child.

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

To all the readers of this post,

Two wonderful things happened here and I want to share them with you. The first is that everyday doors open that can teach us, remind us, warn us and help us grow. Your comments opened one of these doors and I truly appreciate the opportunity to re-learn an important lesson.
The second wonderful thing is that when some of you were offended by a comment I made, you expressed it rather than just write me off.
Being both clinically obese and struggling with a leg that requires a third surgery, I would never insult anyones' weight or the way they walk. I tried to paint a picture of what I saw so readers could visualize the terror in that young student's experience.I wanted you to see what I saw.
Wow, did I miss my mark. Here's the most important thing I re-learned. Words matter. Words inspire emotions. Even one word can change the entire meaning of a concept. I need to be constantly aware that what I say can be felt by another in a hurtful way. Let's all remember this when we talk with children. What you say might not be what they hear. And further, without a trusting relationship, we might never know why a reaction is negative, very different from what we expect.
Thank all of you who had the courage and willingness to share with me your important issue.I learned a lot from this experience. And wouldn't I be a terrible role model, the whole point of the post, if I Insulted anyone when my core belief is that insults and sarcasm are bad strategies for children?

Beth B's picture
Beth B
Academic Advisor, Certified School Counselor

I love this blog post! Credentials do not confer authority.

Katie R's picture

Hello Dr. Curwin, What do you do about fellow teachers who are poor role models, (texting on their cell phones during chapel, etc.)?

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

Hi Katie,
I need a lot more information to answer your question: your relationship with the other teacher for example, or who has been in the school longer. Two quick suggestions:
1. show your principal my post and discuss it in a faculty meeting. 2. Tell that teacher about another (imaginary) teacher who does what she does and ask her what should you do to help. It's tough correcting other teachers, but treating her with dignity and respect works better than telling her what she should do.

Elaine Thomas's picture
Elaine Thomas
Adult Education instructor in Alabama

I love this article. Everyday in my department I try to lead by example, granted I find this difficult on some days. Students know respect and a caring attitude when they see it. They will return these gifts if they are practiced in front if them.

I love every day of my job and consider it a calling. I found it very self-revealing when you recommended: if you want to have any friends, never ask a question as time is running out. I caught myself doing this at many in-services until I finally realized the truth of what you are saying! :) In defense, I want to learn all I can so I may be a better and more knowledgable instructor.

The bottom line is behavior matters and our in-services, as well as, our classrooms will be much improved if only we all understand this fact.

Lisa Martinez's picture

Thank you, Richard!

A couple of years ago I began a journey and should probably start by saying, I've tried very hard to lead by example.

My kids watched me constantly, as I helped a person I noticed alone often and everyone called me when things went wrong. If someone needed help to get away from bullies at their kids school (teachers or staff) and we hosted young women in our home as they escaped domestic violence.

This said, I knew it was gonna be hard for my oldest son as he was very short in class and even a year older than other students. I held him back in kindergarten..

By the end of fifth grade he was still pretty kind and respectful of adults.

Teens and middle school is hard to say hormones caused his behavior change, instead we started with proof of bias by his first teacher who he had for 3 classes each day.

Of course it was time for the ritual a new year and many new teachers to adjust to. This was different. My son went from frustrated to angry very quickly. I spent far too much time talking to the woman. We transferred him and I was just disturbed by her obvious dislike of a student. Week two into school it's time for open house and this
Lady had created this nice video with a power word associated to each student. Very nice, until...
My sons turn and he's a leader, the only child to get the title and his concerns suddenly wasn't about his behavior. She openly chose to give him the title of a leader and I confirmed her definition. She was not accepting of any student questioning or asking her to explain. She picked up on something else, on day 1 my son said he was gonna miss Mr. Beckley. The coolest teacher on Earth. Half the class cheered him on. Everyone knew the teacher and thought he was just cool.

Everyone except the new teacher and Mr. Beckley were often on opposite sides of issues. Two points against my son, first openly liking her opposition and his leadership style which prompted the others to join in celebrating her opposition.

KtHe challenges her, leaders refuse to follow and my son stood up in class for no reason and she didn't like it.

After hearing all her complaints, I wondered how my son who was scoring in 3rd place for STAR testing in two subjects. By progress reports he was failing her classes.

He took first in the school and 2nd in the district science fair with honor roll all four of the two years before middle school.

Apparently, she was right. My son had been able to stand up without any issues from his 4th and 5th grade teacher. His teacher claimed they had an agreement. Considering my son was doing so well, he wasn't going to argue if he needed to stand up a few times a day. He then asked if she knew he was my sons teacher and it became clear. My son had picked up many of his teachers opinions and seemed to face some bias for it.

She wasn't nearly as bad as another who taught him science and gave him an F- all year.

He wins the science fair for the school and gets an F- in science. I tried three times to meet this teacher and she had so much tenure or seniority she felt parent conferences were for other people. If students want help they needed to show up at seven in the morning to get more of her uninspiring lessons. Both days I tried to get her time she didn't even come to her seven AM class. At the end of the year I met with the principal who agreed her grade was impossible considering the school had only once in ten years had a student even get to the district science fair. My son took second place.

My points on the subject, I stopped trying to figure out where my son learned to bully people. He learned from these teachers.

Thanks again for your article. People get offended when I get to my bullying examples which show teachers who bully kids, teachers and administrators.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Ted and Nancy Sizer wrote a great book on this topic- The Students are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract I appreciate the idea here that we need to walk our talk- it's simple and clear. My husband (a 1st/2nd grade teacher) has signs in his classroom: "What if everyone did it?" that encourage EVERYONE in the room to be mindful of the choices they make and the impact those choices have on others in the space.

Val529's picture

"if a rule is too hard for you to follow, then think of how hard it must be for a child to follow it." I work as a substitute teacher, primarily in an elementary building, and have the opportunity to see many different classrooms. I am often amazed as I see teacher reminding students to not talk in the hallway, yet stopping to chat with another teacher. During an assembly students are expected to stay seated and listen attentively, yet teachers are often looking at their cell phones, grading papers, or talking with others. How can we expect our students to follow the rules when we have difficulty doing it?
I recognize adults and children at school have fundamental differences. A teacher may need to ask another adult something important as they are passing through the hall. The assembly may be meant for the student's attention and the teacher may have watched this assembly many times. However, I would agree that we need to lead by example. While our job is typically considered the teaching of reading, math, science, social studies, or some other academic subject, we also have the responsibility of teaching behavior and unless there is a good reason, we need to follow the rules we expect our students to.
That being said, there are going to be times when it is necessary for a teacher to have different rules and standards than the students. At assemblies most of the students are expected to sit on the floor and yet teachers have chairs or stand. Why is there a difference? The rules are different for the teachers and the students. I have had students ask me why they could not sit on a chair or stand. Teachers cannot be expected to follow every rule a student does. With some time and explanation, students can learn that there are going to be differences. Teachers do need to set a good example, but students need to recognize rules are different between teachers and students. How do you handle these situations? Should a teacher always follow the same rules a student does?

kbryantecsd's picture

Dr. Curwin,
You have my sincerest thanks for writing this article. For years I was told I had the best kids, but I had just the same number of gifted, swd, and ed as everyone else. Then I had an epiphany, turns out students reflect the practices and attitudes of the teacher! I have classroom rules: be where you're supposed to be doing what you're supposed to be doing, be willing to try new things, and be kind to others. Now I understand, after reading your article, that I was following these rules and because of that so did the kids! Thanks again!


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