Saturday, August 1, 2015

Rules versus Expectations and What Worked for Me

The first day of school is right around the corner for most of us. It is an exciting time of year for students and teachers, but it can also be quite stressful. I want to share some of the things I learned over the years with the hope that maybe I can help get your year off to a good start.

It is important to recognize there is a huge difference between rules and expectations. So many rules that teachers post in their rooms are actually expectations---come to class on time, be prepared, be respectful, and the list goes on. Rules have consequences where expectations do not. In theory, when a student violates a rule there should be an appropriate and consistent consequence. The problem is that rules create a struggle for power that lasts for the entire year. We write these rules (sometimes very absurd rules) and we expect our students to follow them with very little to no discussion. It isn't realistic and it sets a negative tone from the very first day. (Thank you Louise Morgan for sharing the above cartoon with me.)

For the first couple of years of my career I wrote lots of "no" rules because it was what I experienced as a student. During my third or fourth year of teaching I attended a workshop where the presenter suggested that rules should be written using positive wording. For example, instead of saying something like no foul language tolerated the rule would say speak respectfully at all times. But these were still my rules and it was difficult to enforce consistent consequences because I knew that most of the time when students were breaking rules it was because there were things going on outside of the classroom.

About four years ago someone shared their class rule on Twitter. They took it directly from the Nordstrom employee handbook and it reads, "Use good judgement in all situations." It is so simple yet it covered everything. From that year forward instead of telling students what my rules were for our classroom we took time to discuss what good judgment looked like. I usually dedicated the first two full class periods to this activity because it was that important. During these two days it allowed me to get to know my students and begin to get an idea about what their experiences in school had been to that point. It was the first step in building relationships with my students.

Talking with my students instead of to them set a positive tone for the rest of year. When situations came up where I had to address behavior issues I was not bound by rules and a specific set of consequences. On the surface it might appear that applying the same consequences to each student is fair, but it isn't. By taking some time to visit privately with students I learned a great deal about what was going on with them. Just taking the time to talk to them was usually enough to show them that I cared. While I took the first two days to focus on expectations the discussion did not end there. We would revisit areas that needed improvement throughout the year. Sometimes we did this as a class and sometimes it was one-on-one, but it was always a discussion that allowed students to maintain
their dignity.

I will end this post with a challenge. Take down your rules and consequences that are plastered on your walls and replace them with the one rule about using good judgment. Invest time during the first week to establish a shared vision of expectations. If you really want to leave your students speechless then ask them what their expectations of you are. I can almost guarantee that no teacher has ever asked them that! Trust your students and get to know them. I promise that these two things will change their dynamics of your classroom and make it a much happier place for everyone.

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