The biggest problem between students, schools, and teachers is the question of authenticity. If students feel like the lessons they’re being taught are not authentic, they don’t care to learn them. When teachers are forced to teach a curriculum that they don’t believe authentically prepares students for whatever hypothetical next step seems politically relevant at the moment, the teacher will not perform as well. When either teachers or students do not believe that the rules and expectations being enforced are authentic and teach skills applicable in the real world, students will argue about the rules and teachers will have a very difficult time enforcing the rules.
Don’t worry. All hope is not lost. If you’re careful in selecting your rules. Careful about how you word your rules, and careful about how you enforce your rules, it’s pretty easy to make sure they stay authentic. When your rules stay authentic, they stay relevant, and when they stay relevant, they get followed.
Create rules with concrete, consistent consequences and explain your reasoning to your students
There is a fallacy that at some point, you won’t need to enforce rules. Harry Wong's book was ADORABLE! (Brad, YOU’RE writing a blog that shares lots of stories about how good management reduces the need to manage. Are you LYING to me?) No. I’m not lying, but many classrooms follow the same routine year after year:
Many classrooms and teachers get stuck in what computer programmers call an ‘infinite loop,’ or ‘endless loop.’ I can’t remember what programmers call it exactly, it’s been awhile since I learned C++ in high school or .html coding in college. They repeat the above steps every year as they get angrier and angrier at the continuously falling level of student respect. Guess what. It’s not the students fault. Teachers just needs to stick with the rules, and tweak how they’re enforced.
I’ll let you in on a little secret that silent classroom managers learned when the Earth was young and sun shined a bit brighter: students like strict rules. I’ll let you in on another rule that silent classroom managers learned when computers were the size of horses and gum chewing was a serious problem in schools: adults like strict rules too.
Two degrees and thirteen years worth of district PD provided education textbooks and not a single author capable of preparing a teacher to actually deal with actual classroom management in an actual classroom. Obviously the titles are blurred out of respect for the many other contributions the authors had to the field and my classroom.
Clear rules are easy to follow. Clear rules clearly outline success. Clear rules clearly outline failure. Clear rules are easy to enforce. Clear rules are hard to argue against. Repetition intended.
Let’s look back at a rule I introduced in an anecdote that I fully expect to receive research-based hate mail about: Always behave in a way that helps your classmates learn. Some might say a rule like this is too general. I disagree. As long as you enforce it with your brain, and not your ego, a rule like this is easy to enforce. Let’s say a student is clicking his pen. Clickaclicka. Clickacachickaclicka. Clickaclopaclicka. Clickaclicka. Clickacaclickachicka. You get the point. A rule like the one listed above gives you the ability to stop that student from clicking, because clicking is a distraction that doesn’t help classmates learn.
When you speak to the student (ideally, of course, you don’t speak to the student, you take care of the problem silently,) make sure you mention the rule, the misbehavior (pen clicking,) and the specific behavior you noticed in other students that lets you know his behavior is keeping them from learning. Be as specific as possible. Say: “three of your classmates looked over while you clicked your pen, two exchanged glances and waved in your direction, and one student gripped her pen tighter and tighter as the clicking continued.”
Specific evidence makes the misbehavior clear, and the rule authentic. You’re not enforcing some random rule about some stupid behavior. You’re simply helping the six other students to have a better classroom experience. Citing student behaviors you notice makes the rule real to the exact situation a student is in at the exact moment they’re in it. Citing student behaviors also helps explain the reasoning behind the rule in the least egocentric way possible. You as the teacher don’t care that he’s clicking. You’re simply explaining how it affects his classmates. If you’re very lucky, and the planets align, he’ll have a crush on one of the students in the classroom and be terrified to ruin his chances with her and he’ll immediately stop clicking forever.
He won’t always go for a simple explanation though. Each rule you enforce needs a clear, authentic consequence. If you’re enforcing the rule above, removal or separation from his peers makes sense. His behavior is not helping his peers learn. As such, his behavior is hurting his peer’s chance to learn. As such, he’s no longer welcome in the learning environment. Keep it simple. Then move him to the designated location: a different classroom, behind a hidden bookshelf, to the back of the room, or next to a hungry, sleeping tiger trained to wake up when a pen clicks. You get the picture.
Every consequence needs to match every behavior. Detention is ok, but make sure that it is authentic with the negative behavior. Sleeping in class, for example, would warrant after school detention. One minute after school per minute slept would make sense to make up the time missed in class. The focus of the consequence is on learning, not on punishment. Isolation makes sense for disruptive behavior. Detention makes sense for refusing behavior. Explain this concept of consequences instead of punishments early in the year, and they’ll be more likely to follow your rules, for as long as you enforce them consistently. Your rules die the first time you give a student a free pass for any reason.
So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.