Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Be Good" and Other Ineffective Rules.

Rules! There's got to be rules! But there don't have to be so many. And the ones you have could be much more effective if you follow a few. . . rules. Which leads me to a great subheading.

Rules for Rules

Now that we've got that pun out of the way, let me give a little preface. You simply can't have a classroom without rules and positive and negative consequences. I've seen people try, and it does not go well. 

This is kind of like saying . . . 

Being a good teacher/boss does go a long way, and it does help motivate them intrinsically, but it's not always enough. If there were no rules or guidelines to help me know what I was supposed to be doing at work, and I didn't know whether or not I was meeting those expectations, I'd be stressed and not terribly motivated.  

But simply having rules and consequences isn't going to cut it either. I've seen a few pitfalls that come up time and again as teachers try to make rules in their classroom. So here are some things to do, and some things to avoid.

1. Keep Them Short (3-5 rules)

How can you have so few rules, you ask, why I need 10 rules just to get them to line up properly! It's impossible, you say! No it's not. The rules I'm talking about now are the basic ones that govern the way your classroom runs, not the smaller guidelines and directions that show up during various activities.

Your rules should be short and all of your students should know them by heart. If you go beyond 5 basic rules, you'll lose your students. There will be too much to remember, and they can't and won't remember them.  I remember once seeing a classroom where the teacher had dozens of rules posted on the wall, so much so that she ran out of room on the wall and they wrapped around to the next. Too much. If you can't fit it on one wall, you've got too much.

                         Good Example:                                                                 Bad Example:
"Honestly Jimmy, sometimes I wonder if you've even
read the newly revised edition of the rule handbook."


2.  Use Concrete Language

"Be good" is not concrete language. Be good can mean a variety of things to a variety of people. It's true that you can't outline absolutely everything the students need to do and your rules will need to have some interpretation. But avoid overly broad rules that make it unclear whether the student is or is not following the rule.

                                  Good Example                                                                 Bad Example

3. . . . But Don't Get Too Specific

This is another problem teachers run into. They end up with rules like, "Don't smack your gum." and "Don't unzip someone's backpack while you're waiting in line to go home, because stuff might fall out of it and that's super annoying.

You can address these issues as they come up, but don't create major rules around minor instances. If the students aren't returning their books to the proper place, remind them to do it. You could post a reminder next to the book shelves. But don't make a new rule. Rules should be concrete, but broad enough that they apply to multiple situations, not just one specific time.

4. Don't let your Students Brainstorm Classroom Rules

Oh, it just doesn't work! I've seen this many times. I see why teachers want to do it. They gave good reasoning. They want the students to feel more accountable and create a sort of democracy within the classroom. But ultimately what happens is this:

All the students want to come up with a rule and they don't want to stop coming up with rules. "Jenny just suggested we don't say the word stupid? I'll suggest we don't say the word dumb!" And on, and on.

And their rules will break all of the rules I've just mentioned. You'll end up with a hundred rules that are oddly specific, or far too vague. No one will remember all of the rules and you won't have the heart to tell them that their idea for a rule wasn't a good one.

"Um . . . thanks, Suzy. So I guess I'll just put that on the rule chart, then."

5. Try to Use Positive Language

I've had this one beaten into my head many times too. The idea is to come with rules that tell them what they should do instead of what they shouldn't do. For instance, "Use materials correctly" instead of "Don't play with your materials."

But really, sometimes I think it's okay to use a "don't" every now and then, as seen in rules 3 and 4. Just make sure your rules aren't dominated by don'ts. 

So there are the rules for rules that work for me, and probably will for you too.


  1. Great advice. And I love your illustrations!

  2. I loved this, and I love your illustrations too! But I do think "Don't smack your gum" should always be a rule everywhere for everyone.