Recently my uncle came out of retirement to become a classroom teacher. He worked as a vocational instructor for many years in the prison system, but he was, understandably, pretty nervous about teaching a roomful of teenagers. They can have that affect on the best of us. He will be fine, of course. When I asked him why he decided to take the job, he said, “I really care about the kids who struggle to learn. I was one of those kids, and I told my classes on the first day, ‘I’ll never embarrass any of you. If you don’t understand something, I’ll work with you whenever and wherever you want…and if I don’t know how to help, I’ll find somebody that can help me help you.” He’s going to be great, isn’t he?
He will take care of his students and they will take care of him. Teenagers’ reputation is unfounded. In my time in the classroom I’ve always found them to be some of the loveliest people I know. Teens have abundant optimism, honesty, and a sense of fair play, and we can tap into these wonderful qualities when establishing a set of classroom rules.
Here are some of the structures I use to establish a safe, fair, and productive classroom. They are a conglomeration of methods I learned from mentors and students.
“Day One. Lesson One.” My very first principal at my very first school before my very first day of teaching used this mantra. He did not want us passing out books, running through icebreakers, or going over classroom rules. There is always such energy on the first day, and he wanted us to harness that by jumping right in to content. It was brilliant advice. I always start with a lesson or project and then find time within the first week to establish a Classroom Agreement.
After a few days of our project, I find time to create a collaborative agreement that will serve as our code of conduct. Here’s how you can do it:
- Without explaining exactly what you’re up to, break the students into pairs or groups of three.
- Ask them to consider the best teacher they have ever encountered. This teacher need not be a classroom teacher. They may consider multiple teachers, or create a fictional “super” teacher in their minds.
- Give them five minutes to brainstorm a list of adjectives that describe this teacher. If they write something like “gave me candy,” help them write a descriptor like “generous” instead.
- After brainstorming, have the group agree on the three most important traits of a good teacher.
- After brainstorming, create a class list of these adjectives. I go Round Robin until the groups’ top three adjectives are exhausted, and then I always ask for any other traits that we might have missed. I tell little anecdotes about my favorite teachers as we create the list, and I encourage students to do the same. This discussion is always natural, organic, and illuminating.
- Next, have the students make a second list detailing a good learner. I emphasize that I am not looking for a good STUDENT list. Instead, I’m interested in knowing what they think a good learner must be like. Again, this learner does not have to be in a classroom. I sometimes have them brainstorm this list in their groups, but typically I have them work as individuals here.
- After the second list is made, have the groups decide on the three most important qualities of a good learner.
- Create a class list of these traits, again encouraging anecdotes with each trait.
After we have our lists, I speak briefly about consensus. I note that rules don’t mean much without the agreement of the group, and I have a low opinion of a list of DON’TS. Instead, I want us to agree on how we should treat one another and then respectfully hold each other to this agreement.
I go home that evening and write up a classroom agreement in paragraph form. Here is a copy of a typical one. The next day I have the students review the paragraphs and make edits. I remind them this document will be our set of rules, so they give thoughtful input.
After receiving their edits, I make a final copy, signing my part BEFORE I make copies for the students. Individuals then sign, I file those signatures, and I post the agreement throughout the classroom.
When a disciplinary issue arises, I address it immediately and respectfully, setting up a follow-up conference with the student where we talk in more depth. I keep a stack of these forms handy, and I do my best to always allow the students to “save face” in front of everyone else. I am not interested in making a dramatic example out of individuals.
At the classroom conference, I have the student reflect on how his actions went against the Classroom Agreement. I help them if needed, but I expect them to do most of the talking. I also want them to tell their side at these moments. If I am wrong, I tell the student so and make a public apology in the next class.
Of course, if the student is wrong, I have him write at least five steps he will take to ensure the action does not happen again. I then make a note of our conference and file the student’s reflection. I do not contact parents at this point because I want to give the student a chance to fix things on his own.
If another incident occurs involving the same behavior, I do contact parents, and I always reference the previous conference and the student’s reflection. Parents typically appreciate this prior documentation; it keeps our discussion focused on the problematic behavior while showing how the student plans to fix it.
If a third incident with the same behavior occurs, I then involve administration. I have only ever had three or four incidents (in 15 years) that required me to contact administration, and in that time I have taught every grade between 6th and 12th. Students are much more likely to follow an agreement that they have crafted, and they are more likely to give respect when teachers create classroom management strategies that treat them with respect.