Are Classroom Rules Needed?

Thanks to Joel for allowing me this opportunity to post an article on his excellent site!

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In my short time as a blogger I have written a few posts which have elicited quite a few e-mails, These include posts about the fish bowl lesson, how teachers may create student failures, and ideas about teaching denotation and connotation. However, my post regarding the need for classroom rules has brought in more e-mails than any other. I actually ran a small in-service at my school for some of the new teachers about why I don’t have classroom rules, and I think a couple were shocked that 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.

For me, everything revolves around trust. At the beginning of the semester I work on relationship building since these bonds will make the class more successful over time. Once I establish a rapport and establish a relationship with students, things move along rather swimmingly.

Some teachers in my building wonder why I haven’t really started teaching the course content up to two weeks into the semester (they mean our English readings), but I am teaching. I just use bonding activities and teach the speaking and writing skills first as we get to know each other. By the end of the semester we have usually covered more than the requirements because of the relationships built. I believe in cooperation over competition, and this includes discipline.

I even had the principal walk in and look for my classroom rules. When she couldn’t find them posted, she asked me where they were, and I replied that I don’t have any. She then asked how I maintain order, and I then explained that I teach respect and model it. The kids know I care.

In general, I attempt to deal with behavior issues on a one to one basis. I often use phrasings like “I know you’re better than this” or “I know you aren’t really acting like yourself” or things like that and then may start asking questions about why the student is behaving a certain way, possibly finishing with a technique called the “5 Why Questions.” A typical conversation might go this way:

Me: Why are you here?

Student: Because I have to take this class.

Me: Why do you have to take this class?

Student: ‘Cause it’s required to graduate.

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Me: Why do you want to graduate?

Student: ‘Cause I want to get a good job.

Me: Why do you want a good job?

Student: ‘Cause I want to make money.

Me: Why do you want to make money?

Student: ‘Cause I want to buy stuff, and I want and to take care of my family.

Me: That’s your goal. That’s the dream. This class is not what you’re after — it’s the family and money. This is just a step on the way. What happens if you don’t complete this step?

Student: I don’t get to my goal.

Me: That’s your motivation. Close your eyes and picture the dream and think about that while you’re here. You don’t have to like me or the class, but you do want to reach your dream. Let’s do it together. I’m here to help you reach your dream, but I need you to help me, too.

I know it sounds corny, but the kids really buy in. And, it almost always eliminates future behavior problems and sometimes improves my attendance rates. I have not had a student removed from my classes for behavior issues in seven years since I started this type of discussion with kids.

Kids understand dreams.

18 Comments on Are Classroom Rules Needed?

  1. Nice post. I agree with your concept of trust. My rules has evolved into Respect for the teacher; Respect for students; Respect for property. In my opinion, most other traditional rules are covered by the concept of respect. I had a pretty wild group of summer school students (not music), and really tried to reinforce respect. I think it worked. Several times during the summer when a few students would get out of control, others would chime in and holler, “Hey! Respect!” The students probably forgot most of the content we discussed, but the word respect would probably come to mind when they remember my class.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Stengel.

    I think I’ve found that not even posting rules, yet maintaining an atmosphere of respect, liberates the students. They truly feel like I’m treating them as adults even if we do have to review standards of decorum on rare occasions. Plus, I really think they despise going over classroom rules beginning the semester. I do something very different for the first day of school as well. Maybe I’ll write about it back on my site this week as food for thought for others.

  3. I have been running into a lot of things on teacher message boards lately about how the traditional rules, consequences, and rewards system isn’t effective. I am going to be a 3rd year band teacher (2nd year at this middle school), and I had a terrible classroom management/discipline experience last year.

    If I don’t do rules, what do I do? Does it all boil down to drilling procedures the first one or two weeks, or is there something more?

  4. I agree with you. I don’t have rules in my class. I don’t have a seating chart, either. Although we have a few set procedures, I believe classroom management should lead toward reaching their goals. I try to be as relational as possible and students have responded well to it so far. It’s easier to have a one-on-one conversation with a student for five minutes and really get to the core of it than to spend five minutes a day making the student angry with writing detention slips.

  5. I started out with a lot of rules. Three years ago, I simplified it to two rules:

    1) Follow directions
    2) Do nothing to interferes with the learning or the teaching in the class

    Pretty simple. Two years ago, I simplified it more:

    1) Be respectful
    2) Be responsible
    3) Follow directions

    Last year, we didn’t post any rules. We go over procedure obviously at the beginning of the year, but we don’t have any posted rules. If admin asks for something more, you could always put the word RESPECT up on the wall and call that your rule.

    Something I did also was to post signs around the band hall that said “Everyone needs an attitude adjustment.” I explain that this concept includes me and goes through to everybody in all of the classes. This may help you out some, Michigan.

    The second year in a school is easier than the first. You have a lot of the kids already on your side now (especially last year’s beginners and this year’s). Build on that. As the oldest kids see consistency, they will begin to buy into your program more and more. Let us know how it goes, it should be exciting!

  6. I’m not sure about names for what I’m doing, but I do firmly believe that relationships are the bedrock upon which all else rests. Whether I’m in my classroom, in the office, or in the community, relationships seem to be the most effective and affecting aspect of getting things done. Building collaborative environments (rather than competitive) make my classroom run smoothly and allow students to progress quickly.

    As much as I can, I handle my own behavioral problems one on one with students. I think the kids respect this and want to be a part of things. Laughing at myself does seem to break the ice right away. :)

  7. I’ve been doing some reading by Marvin Marshall re: the very topic about which you post. He echoes many of the same sentiments, such as how we as teachers need to shift our thinking from rules to responsibilities. I agree with this.

  8. This is a great post. As a future high school teacher, I don’t believe I would post rules. Simply because I feel like my students should have matured enough to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion. I would establish how I would like for my students to act on the first day of class, and as you stated, “model it”. My main rule would be to make your decisions wisely. If everyone was to make the same choice that you’re thinking about making, what kind of outcome would that be? For example, if you choose not to respect this person, what kind of outcome would that be if everyone had that same attitude? I would not set rules that I would fail to follow as a teacher. I think most of the rules that teachers post are really “common sense” anyway, for example: follow directions, ask permission, treat others like you would like to be treated, etc. So that’s one reason for my rule… think about the outcomes and make your decisons wisely. All those traditional rules in a nutshell.

  9. Samantha: It’s funny how the things that we think of as being common sense sometimes aren’t! I think the key is explicitly explaining and then modeling good behavior.

  10. I started my second year of teaching going down the wrong track by making rules but then not sticking to them and disaster soon ensued and rippled through my second years band class. thus I lost many things including students.

    When I set out for the second half of the school year, I decided my attitude needed adjusting (thanks to to Joel’s comments that he posted in his band room). You know what? It works on every level.

    I made up four simple rules, spelled out a list of Rewards and Consequences and applied them to each of my band classes from elementary to high school. Something miraculous happened: chaos calmed down to a minor hum of happy children. Discipline = peace and contentment. I didn’t understand this concept fully when the school year started and because of my stubborn nature, I didn’t want to believe it. But learning the hard way proved itself loud and clear.

  11. Hi, I found your post extremely interesting. I completely agree with you that if student respect each other and their teachers, there will be fewer discipline problems. I like the idea of having no rules in the classroom; however, I am studying to be an elementary teacher and I don’t know how well that would work for my future students. Great post though and I will give it some thought.

  12. This is the first year I haven’t had rules in my classroom. For the last couple of years I’ve had a couple, they’ve hung on the wall for a while and then been replaced by something else. This year, though, I have a Grade 5/6 class, and we just never needed rules. I ask them to be considerate -we share classroom space with another class and we try not to disrupt their learning (can’t say the same for them) – in fact, consideration is the key to everything in our classroom, from lining up neatly so I can check everyone is there, to working with everyone in the classroom, to keeping your possessions neat.

    I get nothing but positive reaction to my students from specialist teachers, supply teachers and even other teachers just wandering by. One of the things I found with a focus on consideration is that their good behaviour does not end when I’m not there, it continues for others.

    I’ve still got more work to go – I get cranky too quickly and don’t always explain why certain consequences are coming into play, but I think we’re definately on our way to a considerate classroom.

  13. I think you are male, probably bigger with natural authority. That is why the kids did not eat you alive in a class with no rules. OK – I love the dreaming session. That definitely should happen!!! Then, just extend it. Say that we have rules to help people keep on track and achieve their dreams. Give half a dozen simple and easy to understand ones that work for you. – One year I tried a "no rules" approach. I told the kids "the only rule is to only do things that help you and other people learn". And yes, we talked about why they wanted to learn (graduate, help families etc., was mentioned, but not in the exact way you explained). Very bad behavior that year. I went back to "six of fewer simple rules'.

  14. Linda, it sounds like you found something that worked for you. I am moving from the 7th/8th grade classroom to an exclusively 6th grade room this year. There will be some rules in my class for sure!

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