“You can’t make me…”

After reading “You Don’t Need to Be Brilliant to Be Wise” by George Couros on his blog The Principal of Change, I was inspired to respond at length.

How many times have we heard little ones say “you can’t make me” when told they must do something that they think is unreasonable?  Children have a sense of justice from a young age, hence their repetition of the phrase “that’s not fair!”  For the most part, kids know what is right and what is wrong.  What happens, then, when seemingly arbitrary rules are created to “simplify” school and classroom management?  What happens when everyone pays for the disrespect or irresponsibility of a few?  How can we justify what essentially amounts to punishment en masse when it requires that we deny access or permission to those who would not abuse it?

Further, what, then, happens when teachers are subject to the same sense of rule-making by school leaders?  As George stated in his post, if school leaders can’t trust teachers to do the right thing, then why should parents? Educators talk a lot about the importance of building relationships with students and colleagues and creating a safe environment for academic and professional risk-taking, but do the rules they create serve to support those ideas? Do they support efforts to engage and build relationships with parents and community?

I started my first year of teaching with a set of ten classroom rules–I thought ten rules was nicely limited. I don’t even remember exactly what they were.   As a beginning teacher, I saw veteran teachers all around me making lists of rules, so I followed suit. Making rules was the rule.

Now I have no classroom rules and only two expectations:  be respectful and be responsible.  I believe these two behaviors are essential to building trust in the classroom.  I believe that I have to model them, too.  Sadly, I’ve known some teachers who have been less than respectful of their students and colleagues, as well as those who always manage to blame others for their mistakes and shortcomings.  Thankfully, they are few.  Teachers should also be able to live up to their own expectations if they expect their students to.  I’ve heard teachers talk about how their college degrees, their age, or their experience should exempt them from the expectations we have of children. Ridiculous and egocentric. We must never forget that we are all teaching future adults! We must be cognizant of the implications of our behavior and the hidden curriculum embedded in our rules.

I remember reading a passage in a book, though it’s been so long ago I can’t remember when or where, that talked about how great teachers know when they must be quietly subversive in a world of school rules.  Teachers should know when to break rules to do what’s right.  Young teachers are often less likely to take those “risks,” but as a veteran teacher, I am.  I break rules when I feel that enforcing them would break my own expectations of being respectful and responsible.

When students are with me, I see their faces and their hearts, not the logos on their t-shirts or the number of holes in their jeans.  I am loath to take away a cell phone because their parent texts them during class and I can hear it vibrate, and I cringe at the idea of denying a student his iPod when he is more productive while he listens to music.  I choose to retain the momentum of learning in my classroom without the disruptions that “rule enforcement” introduce.  Instead, I choose to model respect and responsibility, speak gently and respectfully to students who err, and expect and trust them to make better choices every day.  The best “rule” of all is that teachers should do whatever it takes to help students learn in a way that is best for them, creating in their classrooms a climate of mutual trust, respect and responsibility in which students voluntarily strive to meet high expectations.

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About cwilkeson

I am an English teacher, passionate about engaging students in the art of expression with language.
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3 Responses to “You can’t make me…”

  1. I love this post. Especially these two things:

    1. “Now I have no classroom rules and only two expectations”. The wording just makes so much more sense. I know we talk about creating the “rules” with the class. To me, rules seem to push people down, while expectations bring people up!

    2. “…I cringe at the idea of denying a student his iPod when he is more productive while he listens to music” If you know anything about me, I need music to focus. I often go into Starbucks and work on my blog, but if I have left my earphones at home, I almost start to panic because I am worried about my own focus. Why would we take this away from students? If you went into a university class now, you would take whatever you felt would create the best learning environment for yourself. Students in k-12 should have the same opportunities. Yes there needs to be guidance in this as students develop and mature, but we still need to give them opportunities.

    Thanks for this post. It was honest and articulate. I love how you write.

  2. Alyssa says:

    C-Wilke, I already loved you, and my best high school classroom memories were of your classes, but this post has raised my esteem of you even more.

    I remember chatting with a classmate near the end of senior year, and she said, “You ever notice how nobody ever gives C-Wilke crap? I mean, she’s fun and she jokes around with us, and she’s not strict. But everyone knows not to mess with her. I think it’s because she respects us, so we respect her.”

    It’s so true, and so rare. I’ve had a lot of good teachers, but very few who treated their students with such pointed grace and understanding. It’s incredibly liberating, as a student, not to feel like you’re being patronized, and that you are being taught honestly by someone who genuinely believes in you and will hold you accountable.

    I love your blog, and I love this post especially. I just thought you should know.

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