Photo by Paul Bogush
The world is full of warning signs. If you tune in to them, you will see that everywhere you go there are signs that tell you what not to do. Need proof? Click here. Early into my teaching career I realized that the same was true for my classroom. Every day kids were being told what not to do. We actually had entire school assemblies to start the year which consisted of nothing more than rules and warnings about what not to do.
Five years into teaching I removed the rules from my board. It was school policy that we post them, review them, follow them. What happens when a kid talks, how many strikes before getting a detention, the consequence for not doing homework. Each teacher had approximately 10 things that students should not be doing and the consequence for breaking the rule.
That was the year I realized that rules, policies, and strategies make no difference in student performance. It was the year I realized that classroom culture trumps all, and by removing my list of rules, I removed the unwritten message that told the kids that I will try to catch them when they were “bad” so that I can punish them to make them stop. It was the year we started talking about what they should be doing, and why we should be bold, courageous, and take risks.
In place of the rule poster I put a quote. I don’t remember what it was…one of those touchy feely inspirational quotes. And then I hung another…and another. It made my room feel very different. It went from a room in which motivating and inspiring became more important than consequences and punishments. It took me five years to figure that out.
Soon after that I found that I had unwritten rules being slowly developed. A unique classroom culture was being created. There were rules in my class, but they were not written on the walls. They were subliminal messages sent by me with every interaction I had with a kid, with every assignment I handed out, and with every conversation I had with a kid after each problem. The cute quote posters came down and in their place went quotes that reflected our unique classroom culture. My favorite that ended up being carried through for more than a decade was "Chin up and be fierce."
This change in our classroom made me see student behavior and performance in a new light.
I slowly started to realize that many of the “negative” behaviors were not caused by “bad” kids breaking rules, but by kids who were afraid to be awesome. Kids who kept control of their dignity by purposely failing, messing around in class, or any number of other things because if they did not try to be awesome, then they could not fail. It was not about being afraid to “think outside-the-box,” It was about remaining in control. Getting a kid to move outside of their comfort zone can be very uncomfortable because you have to first convince them that it is ok to lose control of the results. For that to happen you need a room where everyone feels safe, where everyone knows that they will fall, but when they look up, they will see a hand being held out to help them back up…not a set of rules ready to push them back down.
My one non-negotiable rule that became the essence of my room was not just for the kids, it was also for me.
"When you fall, I will help you up."
After each time a kid "falls", we have to stop and examine our reaction from the students perspective. We have to stop and think about what we would want to hear if we were in the students shoes. We have to stop and imagine what it must be like to be the kid who is always being punished, always getting bad grades, always breaking the same "rules" and suffering from the same "consequences." After years of schooling, what message have we sent to our kids? Why is our first reaction to dole out a consequence instead of asking "what's wrong?"
When a kid only hears the world whispering to just give up, there is nothing more powerful we can do than hold out a hand and whisper "try it one more time."
It sounds too simple of a rule to make a difference, but it is the only rule that does.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Above edited quote from Marianne Williamson