Education Opinion

Who Makes the Rules in a Classroom? Seven Ideas About Rule-making

By Nancy Flanagan — August 14, 2012 5 min read
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A couple of years ago, I was working as lead facilitator in an e-mentoring program for new teachers. Several recognized teachers from around the nation were contributing their very best “first days” advice for novice teachers--how to set up a classroom for success, selecting activities for the first week of school, common crises, etc. I asked the teachers about classroom rules and their thinking was unanimous: Good teachers assemble their students and, using a self-governing process, collectively write their own classroom rules.


I pressed on the concept: What made collaborative rule-creation more effective in building a smoothly functioning class? Why was it better than simply telling the kids what your particular classroom’s rules (and consequences) were?

Interesting discussion ensued. The teachers agreed that most classes came up with same basics as the teachers themselves would have (bring a pencil, raise your hand to speak). But generating rules encouraged students'--wait for it--"buy-in.” Didn’t it? A couple of them admitted that the amount of rule-breaking didn’t seem to diminish with student-created regulations, but felt that setting boundaries together was a good, democratic habit.

Well, I’m all for democratic classroom practice. But genuine democratic education is a lot more than a kangaroo legislative process, with the teacher copying down suggested rules then deftly consolidating them into rule-nuggets. Should students vote on their own classroom governance structures? What happens when the students approve rules that the teacher doesn’t like? Who determines what happens when rules are broken--does that get turned over to students? Even the criminal justice system provides judicial flexibility in sentencing.

The single attempt I made to create a set of classroom rules with my students--persuaded by an article in one of alphabet-name PD magazines--was a total bust. Make a prediction: what was the first thing my group of 65 seventh graders proposed as key classroom rule?

Keep your hands to yourself. Quickly followed by predictably conventional directives about mandatory pencils, hand-raising, using the bathroom, gum-chewing, tardiness, yada, yada. Lots of what was proposed began with “don’t:" Don’t hit. Don’t kick. Don’t pinch. Don’t swear. And on and on. A few boys came up with creative bits like “don’t empty your spit valve on another person’s chair” but the exercise felt like a pop quiz: Know Your Standard School Rules?

It never felt as if we were wrestling with the really important issues: Building a functioning community. Safety. Personal dignity. Kindness. Order. Academic integrity. Democracy.

There was an administrative directive in my school that required teachers to draw up and turn in a copy of classroom rules. One of my colleagues smugly turned in his “Ten Commandments” every year. While I never felt like Moses, delivering The Right Stuff, I don’t believe teachers should abdicate their roles as rule-setters, formal leaders of the classroom pack. Especially new teachers, who haven’t yet established an authoritative, authentic teacher-persona.

Here are seven ideas about creating classroom rules:

• You’re shooting for influence, not control. Fact is, teachers never have absolute control over kids, even using techniques like fear, punishment, isolation and intimidation. (In edu-speak, “consequences.”) You want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil classroom.

• No matter what rules you put on paper, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them. Behave the way you want kids to behave: Ignore minor, brainless bids for attention. Make eye contact with speakers. Don’t be an attention hog--your stories aren’t more important than theirs. Don’t be rude to kids. Apologize publicly when you’re wrong. Remember that you’re the adult in the room. It’s your calm presence that institutes order, not rules.

• Rules shouldn’t restate the obvious. “No cheating” is a stupid rule. “Bring a pencil to class” is a silly rule. Any rule that begins with “don’t” is a challenge to the rebels in every class. Any sub-rule covered by the general idea of being respectful (or, if your students are in first grade, nice) doesn’t need specificity.

• On the other hand, do give clear instructions about what kids don’t know. What to do when a tornado is spotted, the lights go out or you’re under lockdown--and why following those procedures is critically important. Where the extra, road-kill pencils are, when yours disappears. How to properly feed the guinea pig, sterilize a mouthpiece, or check out a book. Stress: order facilitates learning, makes the class a pleasant place to be.

Students are helpful here. An example: for years, one of my classroom guidelines was putting percussion instruments and mallets in labeled drawers after class. Percussionists were terrible at following this rule. I nagged. They “forgot.” Finally, one of them pointed out that there really was no good reason that the most commonly used tools shouldn’t stay out, easily reachable, during the week. They weren’t going to get dusty overnight--in fact, the extra handling from going in and out of drawers five times a day was hard on mallets. Such common sense. New rule.

• Integrity helps build community. The most important directives in democratic classrooms are around ethical practices: A clear definition of cheating, understood by all students, in the digital age. Why trust and personal best are more important than winning. Why substandard work isn’t ever OK. How true leadership--kids want to be leaders, too-- is a function of respect.

• Carrots and sticks are temporary nudges toward desirable behavior at best, but ultimately destructive. One of the phrases I hate most in the conversation around acceptable student behavior is “caught being good.” One of my kids’ elementary school PTAs started a campaign to catch kids “being good"--one per week--and give them $5 and a mention in the P.A. announcements the next day. Fortunately, the first rash of faux “good” behavior from spotlight-seeking 5th graders triggered a quick end to the plan.

It’s all in the first bullet: We want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil, well-managed school.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.