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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

No Swimming: Classroom Management and Rules

Have you ever read something, and then weeks later found that the author had made a bigger impression than you first believed? Sometime ago, I read the story of a teacher whose first name I believe was Deborah. She has one classroom rule, just one, which she absolutely insists upon, a rule she resolutely refuses to negotiate. What is her one ironclad rule? No swimming during class. That's it. She says she was thinking of an Anatole France quote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Deborah's point is that it is counterproductive to make classroom rules out of everyday courteous behavior that applies whether in or out of school. Students, as reasonably socialized human beings, already know they are treat others with respect, keep their hands to themselves, etc etc etc. According to Deborah's imperfect analogy, the students are, or should be, the rich to whom such classroom rules apply. To illustrate her point, Deborah created a rule no one could break.

The very act of writing down and posting the rules of civilized behavior may invite rebellion. At the very least, it sends a subliminal message that the teacher expects these rules to be broken. As we know from Pygmalion effect research,students tend to rise (or fall) to expectations. The older the student, the more confidently the teacher can assume the student knows the norms of public behavior. After a cursory review, consequences should apply without the expectation of (sometimes numerous) second-chance warnings.

There is another kind of subliminal expectation, and because it is subliminal, it rarely rises to conscious realization. I first became aware of the power of these types of expectations while I was in Japan. There is a rule that shoes are to be removed whenever entering a home (and some other places, as well, the tip-off is usually plastic slippers in the entrance). In the twenty years I spent in Japan, I never saw anyone break this rule. I never heard anyone remind a child more than about three years old to “Take off your shoes” the way we routinely remind them to, “Say thank you.”

People do not often violate such “given” rules, or norms of behavior. I successfully used my observation of the power of “givens” with my own children. I established givens partly by modeling desired behavior and partly by sending non-verbal messages. In this way, I communicated to my kids, for example, that making a ruckus in public was unacceptable. Thus I never dealt with screaming kids in the grocery store, or anywhere else.

I tried to communicate certain so-called classroom rules the same way. For example, as a science teacher I mindfully and intentionally set up the room. I situated my desk so the back of my chair faced a wall and placing the chemical cabinet against that wall, so that chemical cabinet fairly screamed, “Off Limits!” Students do not like to go behind the teacher's desk. I wore my lab coat starting from the first day, and students “somehow” knew they would be doing real and serious science in my class. Similarly, this English teacher has her own ideas (such as the way she uses a seating chart) to non-verbally establish herself as the classroom manager.

Another problem with classroom rules is that rules, policies and routines are lumped together. Individual teachers may have different policies, but they generally share the same rules. A routine is not a rule; it is a procedure for efficiently accomplishing some repetitive task. The first day of class is the day to establish order from the outset by reviewing rules, communicating policies, and practicing routines. Classroom rules, policies and procedures are most effective in a climate of relational trust such as Dr. Pezz, who has no "rules," tries to establish.

...rules may not be necessary.
This may sound overly simple, but I tell my (high school) students that I only create rules if we need to have them. We only have them in my classes if students can’t respect one another and me.

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