From Our Executive Director, Jacqueline Hicks (Sept. 2017 Newsletter):

An Open Letter to Teachers:

Dear Classroom Teacher,

For most of you, it is the start of the school year and with it a new set of challenges along with the ones well known to you. At the start of a new year, teachers are likely to set up rules to manage their classrooms, control student activity and behavior, and match school-wide expectations. Expectations such as:

  • being on time to class;
  • raising your hand and waiting to be called on;
  • turning off cell phones in class;
  • having water only, no food, drinks or chewing gum;
  • using the restroom during breaks;
  • staying in your assigned seat.

I have been thinking about you beginning your classes and getting to know a new set of students. I’m remembering what that was like for me—a bit of excitement, nervousness and anticipation. I was hopeful that all my plans and preparation would result in my students learning what I was teaching. Like most of you I know that student engagement and classroom management go hand in hand. For me, rather than establishing rules, that meant focusing first on the social-emotional development of my students and second on academic learning. That was my plan for managing my classroom and it worked. Just out of curiosity, consider:

What if during the first weeks of school you and your students just use class time to get to know each other as people?

What if instead you discuss the kind of classroom environment that will really support optimal learning for everyone?

What if instead of rules you and your students establish procedures for how you want to learn together and what to do when it isn’t working?

What if you make this topic a regular discussion, to check on how everyone is relating to you and to each other?

What if you tie this discussion to the learning goals (standards) for the course? Ask, “Are we accomplishing what we are here to do?”,

What if you find out what they already know about the subject(s) and what do they want to learn?

I believe that students want to have freedom and responsibility, and that it is our job as teachers to help them learn how to deal effectively with both. If students have the freedom to participate in establishing the classroom expectations and the responsibility to deal with the consequences for breakdowns, I can imagine the following example scenario:

My fourth period students want to chew gum in class. I don’t chew gum and I have a problem with gum in class because it ends up on the floor, under desks and other places that I don’t like. In addition, it is a school rule, so I could easily say it’s against school rules. OR, I could recognize this as an opportunity to teach about freedom and responsibility. I might be agreeable to chewing gum in my classroom with conditions—any gum that ends up on the floor or under the desks or anywhere but in the trash will be cleaned up by the students in fourth period at the end of the period without regard to who put it there (even someone in another period.) The students have the freedom to chew gum, I have my concern about the mess addressed, and the students learn about responsibility and influence. If they are clever they will make sure that I am accountable for squaring our deal with the principal and enforcing the no gum rule in the other class periods. The first time I find gum where it shouldn’t be, fourth period loses its privilege to chew gum. On the other hand, they might pull it off and inspire other opportunities for developing personal freedom and responsibility.

Rules are an invitation to break and challenge them. So, the less rules the better. If you must make rules:

  1. There needs to be a very clear, understandable reason for the rule.
  2. The consequences for breaking the rule are natural, or at least logical and restorative.
  3. The rules need to be periodically reviewed to determine whether they are still relevant, and possibly revised to remain effective.
  4. Rules will only work with student buy-in.

I haven’t found that rules are the best way to manage behavior. Kids for the most part know how to behave by the time they are school age. When you and they are having trouble managing their behavior, no rule or preconceived warning system is going to make a difference. In fact, there is no one size fits all when it comes to students or any other people. What is it about the child that isn’t keeping his/her hands and feet to him/herself? Does a rule stating that students keep their hands and feet to themselves cause that child to behave? I don’t think so. I don’t feel the need for a rule to address behavior that is annoying me or another student, or causing a disruption to what we are doing in class. I would rather just take the time to find out what is causing the student to behave that way. I would suspend my judgement and listen to understand what is going on. Once I understand the need, options for a response become evident. In addition, I have begun to establish a relationship with that student that will serve us both the next time behavior becomes an issue.

Right now, you may be thinking that what I suggest is impractical and time consuming. I will grant that it is unusual. It requires the teacher to give up the semblance of control of the classroom in order to build personal responsibility in the students, and authentic classroom management where the students are cooperative and collaborative with their teacher. You will spend more time and focus in the beginning of the school year on developing responsible students and you will reap the benefit of your investment for the rest of the year in productivity and student achievement. Have a great year!