What rules do you live by? Are your rules building community? or are they building walls?

Rules. We have them everywhere. Some are unspoken, some are written into law, some are posted in the classroom. They all have a purpose: to allow us to live together and build community. There is a reason for rules in the classroom. The rules allow children to be safe, to foster a place where learning can take place, and where relationships can be forged.

do your classroom rules create community?

Sometimes we forget why rules were created. We get so caught up in enforcing the rules, we lose the idea that they are to serve our purpose. We begin to serve them. The idea of protecting our students, protecting our learning, gets lost. Students begin to see the rules as enemies and rigid walls. They don’t see them as protection of their classroom community.

When we think it’s more important to rigidly enforce every rule break, or “break” every strong spirited student who defies our rules, we are no longer building community. We are using rules as weapons of destruction. We will lose our battle.

Take a good look at how you regard your rules. I have observed that classrooms where community is strong have teachers who regard the rules as guidelines for learning. Their students may bounce against the guidelines, and they get reminded, gently, but clearly, (usually with a smile) that they are outside of those rules. They need that reassurance. As odd as that sounds, students don’t want to break rules. They want to make sure they are still there. They need the security of a teacher who is consistent, calm, and in control.

I believe that students immediately sense and react to inconsistency. They don’t feel safe because the rules are not clear or clearly enforced- or not enforced across the classroom. This situation will keep students unsettled and unable to learn. Just like employees who can not trust their employer to act rationally, students will remove their trust from anything that teacher tries to teach them; they may have to be in that classroom, but they have effectively “quit” that teacher.

how can a community be rebuilt? Is March of the school year too late?

I think this depends on the teacher, not the students. I personally believe students want a safe place with expected routines. Misbehavior and disruption show me children crying out for regularity and familiar patterns. The fact that they go from classroom to classroom, multiple times a day, that each classroom has different rules and norms to which they are expected to conform, makes it imperative that they know clearly what it is that you expect of them in your classroom.

I don’t think every class should be the same! This is an important rule of life: different behaviors are acceptable in different places. As little children, rules are different at home and at grandma’s house. Rules are different between home and the store, or at church, or at the workplace. It is okay that one teacher’s class rules are different. What matters is that the teacher is consistent.

An interesting question to ask students is which teacher/classroom do they enjoy the most? Which do they enjoy the least? Find an opportunity to observe those classes. Watch the teacher moves, the comments, the overall attitude of the class towards his/her instructions. Do you feel the consistency, the unspoken trust?

what is the purpose of your rules?

Revisit your class rules. Are they to build community, or to keep kids “in line”? How did you introduce them to your students? Or did you just post them? Do your students know the rules are for their benefit or for their imprisonment while they are in your classroom? It is never too late to re-introduce your students to the class rules. Keep it brief. And stay consistent. Begin, one situation at a time, to remind students of a rule, give them time to correct, and don’t show frustration or anger. Stay calm. This will take time and will require your vigilance every day. Rebuilding trust is not going to happen overnight because it was not lost overnight, but through a series of cumulative actions over days and months.

There are many good resources to help us as we seek the best way to build (or rebuild) community in our classrooms, from watching how consistent teachers act, to using good classroom management strategies. This idea of building community is especially important for teachers who come into a classroom during the year. They may have been handed an existing classroom, full of community issues, or they may have a class of students who have had little or no community. Take time to build the expectation that classroom rules are there for the students. Exercise consistency in administering them. Throw out rules that don’t fit. Yep, I said throw out those things you cannot consistently enforce. You and your students don’t need a rule that doesn’t work to build community.

Start your rule making process with your students in mind. Enforce your class rules with your students’ need for structure firmly in place. Administer discipline gently, gracefully and firmly, using clear, direct wording. Every time. Consistently. Let your rules protect your students, not punish them.

This is easy to read, easy to write. I can hear the objections– “you don’t know my students” — and I don’t know your students personally. I do know children. Let’s face it- our students are still children. No matter how mature they look, they are not. Even the most jaded student is looking for people they can trust. They need adults who act with consistency, and they will reject those whose actions are not. You will have to decide that you want to make your classroom a safe place. You will have to commit to the daily action- even in the face of the bad days that will be a part of this process- to continue to do what it takes to build your class community. When you make that commitment, your students- your children– will know you are serious and will act accordingly. You’ve heard it before: nothing worth having in life is easy. But once you see this community happening, you won’t settle for anything less.

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