A Teacher’s Rules

In the school where I taught for many years, students and teachers worked together in the first weeks of school to create classroom rules that were based on everyone’s hopes and dreams for the year. I was always impressed by the positive, simple, insightful rules that emerged from the process. So, one year I decided to create a set of rules for myself, based on my own hopes and dreams. After thinking, writing, and revising I came up with the following four rules that I hoped would guide my behavior as a teacher:

  1. Think before you talk
  2. Do your best work
  3. Tell them why
  4. Make them geniuses

I printed these rules on an index card and hung them above my desk. I don’t think my students noticed them but I saw them every day.

Here’s what the rules helped me think about:

1. Think before you talk.

In the hectic life of a classroom, it’s easy to speak without thinking about the impact of your words. One particular incident comes to mind. Alise was a student who struggled with reading. Several times a week she slipped quietly out of class to go to independent sessions with a tutor. Her reading—and confidence about reading—was improving. One day I was busy with a small math group that was having difficulty staying on track when I noticed that Alise, who was working with another group across the room, was deeply immersed in her work and late to her tutoring session. Without thinking, I called out, “Alise, isn’t it time for you to meet with your tutor?” The room became silent and all the students watched as Alise gathered her books and scurried from the room.

In the following days, Alise seemed to retreat and become somewhat less engaged in class activities, particularly activities that required reading. All became clear at a meeting with her mother, who said, “Alise is very sensitive about her problems with reading and about needing a tutor.” My cheeks flushed with guilt.  I knew about Alise’s sensitivity but, distracted by the needs of the students in front of me, I’d been thoughtless. By calling attention to Alise’s reading problem, I’d embarrassed her and undermined her fragile confidence. Had I thought for a moment before speaking, I would have gone over to Alise and quietly reminded her of her appointment.

Rule number one grew out of this experience and others like it. By considering the full range of choices available in each situation before acting or speaking, I hoped to make my class a safer place for my students.

2. Do your best work.

My students were familiar with the refrain: “You are capable of great work—show it to me!” But if I expected good work from my students, I thought it was only fair that I set the tone by doing my own best work for them.

As I thought about areas of my teaching practice that needed improvement, I decided to focus on how I gave feedback. Some of my students came into the classroom in September not understanding the difference between good work and bad work. I knew detailed feedback would help them learn how to self-assess.

But knowing the importance of good feedback did not always translate into being conscientious about giving it. I was sometimes slow in getting papers graded and not always clear with the students about how I’d evaluated their work. I decided that I specifically wanted to work on giving feedback in a timely fashion, making sure my comments were meaningful, and using rubrics to clarify my grading.

This rule reminded me of my obligation to improve. It was sometimes hard to follow, but giving my best to my students, even in the aspects of teaching that I found difficult, was the least I could ask of myself.

3. Tell them why.

If my students could have made one rule for me, this would have been it. Sixth graders are always curious about how and why things are done and I thought it was respectful to answer their questions as best I could. But if I was going to tell them “why,” then in turn I needed good reasons for my decisions.

“Why do we have to do homework?” was a frequent question.  At first, I didn’t have a good answer: they got homework because I got homework when I was in school, and my parents got homework when they were in school, and so on. But when I really thought about their question, I had to consider the goals for nightly assignments.

Thinking about real purposes made me reconsider the types of work I sent home. I began to assign different work—some review of what we learned in class, but a good deal of application as well.

In answering their questions seriously, I refined my own thinking about how I teach. Incidentally, when my students realized that I took their questions seriously, they learned not to use questions as a way to complain (“Why can’t we sit where we want?”), a bonus of rule number three I hadn’t expected.

4. Make them geniuses.

This does not mean that I expected all of my students to score in the ninety-ninth percentile on standardized tests. Rather, I intended for all students to experience moments of true understanding during their year with me. One of my missions as a teacher was to create lifelong learners, and moments of understanding are the building blocks of real learning.

A colleague tells the story of teaching her students “Turtle Math,” a kid-friendly application of Logo™ programming language. She taught them the basics of the programming language and then challenged them to design a program to create a spiral on the computer screen. One group of students struggled to get started, but soon they solved the problem by trial and error. At the end of the class they congratulated themselves by proclaiming, “We’re brilliant. Brilliant!

What a wonderful moment this teacher had given her students by stepping back and letting them do the work for themselves. For a minute they were geniuses, and I like to imagine that the next time these children were faced with a similar challenge they were helped by remembering how brilliantly they had solved the Turtle Math problem.

I tried to picture these students as I planned my teaching. I welcomed strategies that increased the amount of thinking my students did and decreased the amount of telling I did. Could students figure something out for themselves rather than having me tell them about it? Could the skills we were learning be used to solve an interesting problem? Those were my opportunities to let kids be brilliant!

Did I break these rules?

Sometimes. Like my students, I sometimes struggled to follow the rules. But making the rules was as important to me as following them. Seeing them spelled out on that index card above my desk helped me become the best teacher I could be because they reminded me to stay focused on the most important part of teaching: the children and the way children learn.
Janet Gannon taught at Tiller School in North Carolina for five years. In 2003 she was selected as North Carolina’s Charter School Teacher of the Year. After retiring from teaching, she became a biologist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where she works with other scientists to help them analyze geographic information.

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