“But you said!” “That’s not fair!” “Are you sure?” “How come we have to do that?” It’s clear from reactions like these that many students are used to arguing with the authority figures in their lives. From howls of protest when we make unpopular decisions to endless debates about possible answers on a test, many students are clearly accustomed to getting their own way if they nag loudly enough to wear out their exasperated teachers.
If you are like many teachers, you may find that it seems to take constant effort to find the ideal balance between meeting the individual needs of students and being consistently fair to everyone. It is not always easy to determine where the limits in a classroom should be and it is even more difficult to enforce those limits.
Here is what can go wrong when teachers do not abide by their own standards:
Step 1: You politely ask students to cooperate with you.
Step 2: They disregard your request in various exasperating ways.
Step 3: You repeat your request in a louder voice in an attempt to be “firm” with them.
Step 4: You try not to be surprised when they disregard your request again.
Step 5: The cycle repeats itself until you lose your cool or just give in to their demands.
Although it is sometimes difficult, try to accept the fact that students will test every decision you make, will argue endlessly if given an opportunity, and will continue to push every limit possible even on the last day of class. When you are aware that your decisions will be tested, it will be easier for you to set limits.
Even though failing to set and abide by firm limits in a classroom can create a cycle of unproductive behavior, you can avoid this problem. One helpful approach is to remove as much of the emotion from the situation as you can. It’s not always easy to resist when students appear ready to stage a tantrum or have been nagging you for a while or who seem to know your weak moments, but those teachers who can take a calm and straightforward approach will find it much easier to deal with student misbehavior.
Another way to manage the issue of setting limits is to take time when you create a rule, policy, or procedure to put yourself in the place of your students and anticipate what could go wrong during enforcement. Planning how to handle possible protests will make it easier for you to convince your students to cooperate.
You should also be careful to not just be fair, but to make sure that your students perceive your decisions as fair. Make it a point to preempt student challenges by letting your students know that you intend to be fair to everyone in the class when you make decisions that affect the entire group.
Resist the temptation to be a pushover. Many teachers give in more frequently than they should in an effort to be agreeable to their students. In the long run, this will fail as students continually struggle to gain their own way. Adopt the stance that while you are friendly, you are also a firm teacher. Project a matter-of-fact attitude whenever you have to relay the enforcement of an unpopular decision and you will find that setting limits and abiding by them is not as difficult as it seems.