Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rules: Make 'em or Break 'em?

Are your rules sending the message: "My way or the highway?"

I was lucky enough to have the two worst behaved 5th graders my first year of teaching.  Don't get me wrong, I had a great class, but when I think about that first year, I will always remember Vijay and Terrell. Vijay was very quiet and had a terrible temper. He would sulk all the way down in his chair anytime I started a math lesson and mumble under his breath (but for all of us to hear), "I HATE math."  Usually followed by, "...this is SO stupid."  He was unmotivated by every subject and his desk was so messy with crumpled up papers that I thought at any minute it would suddenly burst filling the whole room.  Terrell wasn't much better. Every second he was making some sort of noise with his mouth, fingers, feet, pencil, paper, ruler, chair, get the point. Like Vijay, he never did his homework either. Terrell was the class clown who loved to make everyone laugh, except me because he was constantly disrupting whatever learning I was trying to facilitate.  

Every day they broke rules I/the school made. From disrupting class, to running down the hall, too negative or too funny, pushed others around and rolled their eyes so many times at me that I thought they may not roll back.  To be honest, there were nights where I would go to the gym and run (what felt like) 30 miles to get out the frustration or walk in the door and down a glass of wine before I even took off my coat.  I tried to focus on the other 23 students who seemed to enjoy having me as a teacher, and who were following the rules. I just couldn’t get those two boys off my mind. They both hated me.

But I was blessed and thankful I had them.

Why? Because they made me a better teacher. You see, I learned there are sometimes too many rules. Rules about being in the classroom, out of the classroom. Rules on the playground, the bus. Rules about what to do when kids broke the rules. There were so many rules, the only time I really had a conversation with them were about the rules. I was making them and they were breaking them. It was a vicious cycle. Then something happened. After winter break, they both came back with smiles on their faces and in happy moods. I thought, "Whew, now we can start off the New Year right!" To keep us on the right track, I decided to find a private time to ask each of them why they were so happy and what they did over winter break. They both basically said, "we didn't have to come to school to see you." Wow, OUCH! 

That night I went home and realized I couldn't change them, but I could change me. I started to ask more questions in a nicer way, focused more on their positive behaviors, picked my battles when it came to rules they didn't want to follow and I kept a journal about them. I wrote down when I saw them smiling, and what they were saying and doing at that time. 

I found out that Vijay was so happy after winter break because his sister was home from college and he had missed her a lot. He said he was lonely when she was away because his parents worked all the time. I found out that Terrell was obsessed with Usher and Nelly.  He also loved to wear goggles on his head and sing rap songs. So, I made some changes. Whenever Vijay finished his work and showed a little bit of a positive attitude, he could take some time to write his sister letters or draw a picture for her. When Terrell did his homework and refrained from bothering those around him, he got to wear his "thinking" goggles all day (just like Usher's trendy goggles in the pic above) and we took commercial breaks during lessons so he could sing his favorite rap songs.  Instead of seeing their frustrated frowns, I started noticing their sensational smiles.  

When there were days where one or both of them started slipping up, I didn't have to say a word.  Their peers did.  "C'mon Terrell, we wanna hear you rap, where are your goggles?"  "Vijay, we want to see those cool pictures you always draw for your sister, do your work, dude!"  Their classmates started wearing "thinking" goggles, glasses and hats in class too. They also took time to write some of their loved ones letters, sing their own songs, or draw pictures when they were finished with their work. We all were much happier. There was less talk about rules and more time for learning.

In the courses I teach each semester, I touch on classroom management and rules, I share these thoughts with my undergrad and grad students about rules and expectations which I strive to follow.

1.   Communicate why there are rules. Gone are the days where you can just say, “Don’t do that.” Kids now want to know why and we should tell them. Why can’t they just sleep with their mobile devices? "Because I said so," doesn’t cut it. Instead explaining that it is harmful to your health and you need to unplug when it’s time for a good night’s rest.
2.   Be consistent. This is so challenging. I struggle with this at home as well. You have to follow through. Yes there are times when a rule for one kid may not be applicable to another one. Explain why and try to be consistent with the message you send each and every day.
3.   Have students/your kids set the expectations with you.  I love this one and have seen it work well. When setting rules and expectations ask them what they think should occur in the classroom. Why it is important?  They will take more ownership in following the rules if they have a hand in setting them.
4.   There are non negotiables.  You cannot sprint down the hall with scissors or yell profanities in the middle of class. Enough said.
5.   Some classrooms/families have different rules than yours. Another tough one. Don’t judge others for the rules, differences in rules, or (what appears to be) lack of rules they have. Just be true to your values and how you want your kids/students to behave. Always putting the child’s best interest first is the best motto to follow.

Whether you are a parent, and educator, or someone who is nice enough to read this blog, I hope you find these rules ones that you can follow. 

Just remember, some rules are meant to be broken. 
If they are, put on your thinking goggles and find a way to have fun!


  1. I enjoyed reading this Mandi. I manage people and these core principles still apply. The relationship dynamic is different, but the focus on myself and adjusting my paradigm to achieve the desired result is the same. Truely rewarding. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Thanks Jim for reading my blog and commenting! Relationships are certainly complex. You are exactly right, we have to focus on what we are doing first. Appreciate your insight!