Rules...are for the Teachers...

This afternoon I spent a portion of a staff PD day discussing our school rules and potential changes for next year. We went over the usual suspect; gum chewing, cell phones and dress code. The discussion was heated as it usually is when it comes to things that people feel strongly on. Myself, I want kids to be able to use cell phones in class, but there are many that want them completely banned. Gum chewing is the same way in that I don’t care if kids chew it in my class. There is plenty of research indicating the positive effects of gum chewing on concentration and focus. Yet, because it is a school rule, I enforce it in my classroom and don’t allow it to be chewed.

After all this discussion, I headed home and started to think about the whole process and had a bit of an epiphany. None of these discussions or potential rule changes had to do with student behavior but rather on staff behavior. Let me explain…

The gum chewing conversation came about because many teachers were not enforcing the rule and some sit in front of their class chewing it themselves. Yes, I realize gum chewing is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. However, if it is a school rule it must be enforced universally or it causes confusion among students and pits teachers against each other. I am labeled a “mean teacher” if I follow the rule we have in our handbook when others are not. So, this rule discussion was really not about kids chewing gum, but more about teacher’s enforcing a rule or not.

When looking at the cell phone policy, it is again more about the staff than the students. Anyone with half a brain knows the potential power of a cell phone in terms of a learning tool in a classroom. For resource strapped schools, these phones are mini-computers in kid’s hands. Why would we not want a kid to be able to pull out a phone and in seconds be connected and pulling information they need? Yet, this rule is not about that. It is about those staff members that are not willing to a) actively monitor their classrooms if students are using them and b) not willing to teach digital citizenship through their use. We are so afraid of a student doing something “bad” with a cell phone that we miss learning opportunities. Yes, kids could take pictures and post them on Facebook of themselves and friends doing silly things in the back of your class. I would argue that is a reflection of the teacher as much as the student.

On a total sidebar, I laugh at the number of teachers who are constantly on their cell phones during school hours texting, emailing, updating status and playing games right in front of the students. What message does that send the kids when the staff won’t even follow the rules set for the students?

Many of the other rules we discussed in the open forum had similar themes. More than once I heard, “it is too hard to enforce that rule.” I heard very few people mention what was in the best interest of the student’s and their learning environment. It may just be me, but I saw evidence that many of my school’s rules were a product of not keeping kids safe or protecting the learning environment. What I did see was rules being created because teachers were afraid to step up and enforce existing rules, or to step up and recognize learning opportunities and not punishment opportunities.

I wonder how many schools have rules established for the sake of the adults rather than for the sake of the kids. 


Melanie Meehan said...

Wow, you bring up many issues here. Gum chewing seems like a pretty straight forward power struggle issue although there may be some sanitary aspects as well; no one likes to find gum under their seat. However, teaching responsible citizenship has always been important and now, teachers have to realize that this involves digital citizenship as well. I agree with you on welcoming cell phones as, throughout history, banning has not been too effective at shaping behavior-- not to mention the educational benefits of cell phones. Great post!

Tom Panarese said...

We have a similar ongoing thing regarding guys wearing hats in the halls. I'm tired of being told to enforce it.

I think that sometimes we come up with rules or wish to enforce rules that deal with minute things like gum or cell phones or water bottles because we think we're reinforcing some concept of "respect" that supposedly students need to learn.

Sure, there are students who have no respect for just about anyone or anything, and there are students who will take advantage of you when they see you're not a hard-ass about rules, but most students seem to appreciate that you're not their mother nagging them. It makes for a better relationship.

Unknown said...

With a staff of 100 teachers, how could you ever get ALL to be consistent? Maybe we need to pick a few rules that EVERYONE can buy into....but I'm still not sure even that would work. Perhaps we should have school-wide rules, but leave some up to the discretion of the individual teacher.

Josh said...


I think that is a bit of a cop-out. If it is a good rule, why should it not be universally enforced? I am not saying we dictate classroom level rules...I am talking about school rules. It doesn't matter how big your staff is...if it is an agreed upon school rule it should be followed.

onewheeljoe said...

Students and teachers have different jobs and students can understand this. You bring up some interesting issues of authority here, but the logic that teachers should follow the rules in the student handbook is a big stretch. I believe students and teachers should negotiate the norms of a classroom together and teachers should explain the rationale for school policies that students feel are oppressive or unfair. It makes much more sense to show students that teachers have to adhere to rules, also. I have never worked in a school where teachers weren't allowed to chew gum. Same with cell phones. I personally put my gum in the trash and don't talk on my cell phone during meetings. This models responsible behaviors. There are hypocrisies that exist- teachers who arrive late to every meeting but have zero tolerance policies for late students- but we don't need to exaggerate them by implying that teachers should follow student rules.

Josh said...


Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. One quick question...what would be an example of a rule that kids should follow and not teachers? With the cell phone example, it is one thing to be on your cell as a teacher during your personal plan period in your classroom. It is totally different to be on your phone while kids are in your class and you are supposed to be teaching.

Wm Chamberlain said...

Josh, I am not a rule follower by nature. That doesn't mean I intentionally go out of my way to break rules, but it means that if I don't think the rule is necessary I ignore it. Yes, I have had lots of problems with other teachers in my building because I won't enforce the school rules in my classroom, it is my classroom after all. How can I enforce rules I know are put in place for ridiculous, non education reasons?

What message are you sending to the students enforcing rules that you can see have no benefit to the student or the class? 'That is the school rule' is the same as 'because I said so'. That isn't a legitimate reason.

How can we expect our students to become self-sufficient if we continually regulate the minutiae in their lives? How can we expect them to respect the important rules when we have so many dumb ones we expect them to follow?

I also must admit that prefer to see students push the limit of the rules. I don't want them to grow up to be completely compliant to authority. I want them to actively question it. As our society moves forward, these are the people that will push back against injustices that are legal, but immoral.

Ole said...

I love this post. We battle the same issues, but too many teachers fail to realize they are classroom management issues not student behavior issues. It should be about how we as teachers teach students to be better, more responsible global citizens with the tools they already have. My question is: how do you coach the teachers in such a way that they don't become defensive and feel attacked?

Josh said...


Thanks for the comment. I think there are two things at play here. First, is the rule itself. I agree there are some rules that are crap and should be gotten away with...cell phone bans for one. I do think we have gotten crazy in what we put on our students in terms of restrictions and rules.

The second piece is if we have "good" rules, it should be universally enforced. Again, I am not assuming all rules are good but if it exists I will do my best to enforce it in my class. If you are not following a rule in your class because you are morally against it, that is much different from what I see which is just lazy and disinterested teachers taking the easy way out.

Maybe I am wrong, but I will continue to uphold the rules while still fighting to have less and "better" ones in place. I want rules that promote learning and safety, not compliance and ease for teacher management.

onewheeljoe said...

The gum one is my favorite because it affects me personally and illustrates why we have rules. If you allow students in a middle school to chew gum, you invariably end up with huge custodial costs. Gum gets in the carpet, on the bottom of desks and even on the pages of books. If you allow teachers to chew gum, your custodial costs don't change. Gum lands in the trash. The reason schools don't restrict teacher gum chewing is that it doesn't have a cause and effect relationship with custodial time and cost. It ends up being an age restriction, similar to driving.
Another rule is where we park our bikes. When I ride my bike to school, I'm allowed to keep my bike in my classroom or in the literacy office. Students must park their bikes at the bike racks. This is a rule about scale and responsibility. There isn't enough room for kids to keep their bikes inside. Also, if kids did keep their bikes unlocked inside, invariably a school has to answer to parents about a lost or stolen bike. Schools create policies that work with the sheer numbers and logistics of students and transportation. This is systems thinking. Applying a logic of fairness to it without acknowledging problems of scale, as well as different ages and rules oversimplifies an interesting system. Students can understand the different roles people in a school have. When we understand the school as a system, we can involve all stakeholders in improving the system.

Josh said...


It has been my experience that gum ends up on the desks and carpets when their is a ban in place...when I have allowed it in my classroom in the past, I never had an issue. They understood and respected our space. I think it becomes an issue in a classroom without that respect.

onewheeljoe said...


This is a great post and a cool discussion you have started. Thanks for thinking together with teachers in a public space.
I want to challenge this:
"I think it (gum) becomes an issue in a classroom without that respect."

Do you find that this philosophy works at scale? Can you substitute the word "school" for "classroom?" Would you contend that schools with a culture of respect don't have problems with gum?

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent conversation. I would encourage everyone to take things one step further when considering school rules and their enforcement: how do those rules connect to the real world? What makes them relevant to life outside of school?

I personally agree with Josh's mindset that we need to model the behaviors we expect from our students. If it is wrong to be tardy to class for students, then it should be wrong for teachers to come to school late. This is a rule I both teach and model for my students, but I also tie it to real life. One of my student's parents was recently fired from a job he's held for 13 years because of tardiness. There are many unemployed people in the US right now who are looking for jobs and willing to show up on time. I tell kids, "You need to come to class on time to prepare you for real life, where you will be expected to show up for work on time."

I personally remember how it felt to be a kid in class and see my teacher as a hypocrite--a "do as I say, not as I do" person. Back in my day, teachers would teach about the perils of smoking and then go smoke in the teacher's lounge--very ineffective! I felt much more respect for teachers who actually practiced what they preached.

I try to create that environment of respect with my own students by modeling the behaviors I'd like them to exhibit and by explaining how they relate to life outside fo school. Doing so creates an environment of mutual respect. I am not two-faced and enforcing a rule that I myself cannot follow. That environment of mutual respect almost completely eliminates discipline problems in my classroom--and I work with kids who have have serious behavioral & academic issues. A whole school can create that environment of mutual respect, if the staff buys in....but that takes coming to consensus about which behaviors to model and what consequences to enforce--with both students and staff (For example, late is late. If I am late, I stay after school to make up my time.)

@ktvee said...

I refuse to have "Classroom Rules" anymore. I took them down a couple of years ago and haven't looked back since. I guarantee the free-thinking and questions that take place in my semi-chaotic bustling classroom are far better examples of learning than when I had complete control as the sole dictator of the learning environment. One day my student got his phone out and I said, "Hey, are you texting?" He showed me what he was doing with his phone...videoing his science experiment so he could compare the difference between the two experiments he was doing. I felt bad. I was falling into the "rules" trap where we assume every kid in our classroom is out to get us. It's just not true. Rules are totally for the teachers. If I want them to truly understand they are in charge of their own learning, then I can't spend my whole day trying to be "in charge" of everything they do. Thanks for the great post and reminder.

Melaniejo19 said...

You make some very good points. I am not against students having gum in school. When kids are allowed to have gum they don't feel like they need to hide it (under desks, on backs of chairs, etc). During testing week we allowed students to chew gum and there weren't any noticable problems.

As for cell phones, we are doing a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) pilot next year and I am very excited about it. There are lots of questions, concerns, and issues to consider but our tech director has really thought things through and asked for staff input. Teachers are not going to be required to use technology in their classroom if they are not comfortable with it. It will be optional and the sky's the limit for those who choose to incorporate it.

Janet Abercrombie said...

I really dislike the "rules" discussion the first day of school. I have to explain that there are some rules we make for ourselves to make our environment better. There are other rules we follow because we live as a part of community or society.

At least I can explain the reasoning behind gum-chewing. Not everyone is as responsible as I know you [insert "my class"] would be. The one rule I can not explain is the one about wearing hats.

One year, I was surprised at the parent backlash when I allowed students to eat fruits and vegetables in class. I found that students were rushing through lunch and throwing away all their healthy stuff. When I allowed them to snack on the healthy stuff in class, they ate it - eating carrots became a privilege. The parents thought I was "losing control of my class" and, as a first year teacher, I didn't have the energy to fight it.

In my ideal world, each school (perhaps each grade level) would stop and ask the question, "Why do we have this rule?"

Janet |

Anonymous said...

I love your comment, Janet, and I'm pleased to say that our school "rules" meetings usually mirror just that: how does this rule apply in the real world?

For instance, we don't give grades for HW -- you either you did it, or you serve Mandatory Study Hall to complete it. MSH goes for school work that is not completed as well. Even if you forgot it at home... in the real-world, if you're flying to LA for a meeting, you don't get to have mom or dad drive the paperwork you forgot to you. If you're getting ready for a meeting, you find time to complete the work... whether it's during regular work hours, or if you have to take it home with you. Time management is the goal -- and the students buy into that quickly (no one wants to serve MSH).

Our students earn privileges based on their behavior: if you can show your peers and teacher that you know how to treat classroom materials respectfully, gum chewing is a privilege you can earn. Students can untuck their shirts or take their shoes off in a classroom if they've advocated for this privilege or earned it in some way.

There's a book by Jane Bluestein: The Win-Win Classroom that our staff was required to read last summer that sums up the rationale that we're striving for. Students have a M.O, teachers have objectives -- when both sides get that and can give and take so both needs are met (eliminating distractions, order for teachers; learning and socializing for students), everybody wins. As an educator I'm constantly having to ask: is this Win-Win / how does this match the real world expectations?

Great thread --- thanks for starting the conversation!

T Whitney said...

May we all remember that teachers are employees; we do not attend school here. Students realize already that there are differences in our roles and with that understanding, teachers and students do NOT have the same set of "rules". There are differences people must adhere to throughout life. Let us begin that process with our children while they are young so they can adapt to those differences rather than rebel.

Josh said...

T Whitney,

I understand that there are different roles within the school between a teacher and a student. However, when it comes to behavior expectations often associated to "rules" should there be? I am also curious about your use of the word "rebel". Would you just have students be compliant to every rule blindly because that is life? I am just wondering if we raise compliant kids we will lose students' ability to be critical thinkers and adults capable of engaging in discourse that ultimately leads to social change...maybe I am over thinking this. :)

Jen Smith said...

We literally JUST had the same discussions at our middle school. I too, was very frustrated that the rules were disguised as being important for the students, where in reality, the rules are to protect the teachers. We need to change...the students we are teaching are connected and have the ability to access information where ever they go! The research on chewing gum is overwhelming. It helps students attend, stay alert and focused. It also helps keep their teeth clean! How do we get the teachers to try it? Why not change, and then adapt to the students in this digital world? Arghhh! I do agree though, that even though I totally disagree with the rules, they still need to be enforced in the school by all teachers because we are already divided enough!

Anonymous said...

This is a great post and it touches on a theme very dear to me. I can not see how any teacher or leader can have one set of rules for them and one for the students. Staff should follow and respect the very same rules we expect from the students. This goes for queueing in the dinner hall, not using their phone in lessons for non learning tasks and even doing their top button up - something we expect of all our students.

I am surprised by Will Chamberlain's comments - does he not see the fundamental flaw in his logic that criminals might view rules to be nonsense but we still expect that they follow the rules of society - school rules are a micro climate of cultural expectations and it is wrong and unethical to model to students that some rules are ok and some are not.

Of course school rules should be reviewed often to a) make sure that they reflect the ethos and culture at that time and b) set the correct expectation of behaviour and learning attitudes. However, when they are set they should be set for all people in that organisation. Developing a collective responsibility in staff in schools is one of the hardest but most important things to enable success at all levels.

Dr. Sara Womack said...

I teach elementary school music. Our students are allowed to BYOT and are consistently respectful and responsible. If students are taught how to utilize technology appropriately at a young age, it will carry them through secondary school. In the "real world," citizens have immediate access to technology, so these skills should be taught in our schools today.

We set high expectations for student learning, why don't we also set high expectations for their level of responsibility in the use of technological devices? Most of the time, students will rise to the challenge. Punishing the entire student body by not allowing technology is unjust. Students that break the rules should be given the consequence, not the students that follow the rules. Too often, rules are established for the few instead of the whole.

This Brazen Teacher said...

A grad students in my program is doing research at an magnet high school in Austin-- they had a problem with cell phones.

All enforced rules have to have a majority approval backing of faculty, admin, AND students however... a interesting idea that could expose kids to democratic discourse and problem solving, consideration on theoretical foundations of rules etc.

Teens and staff worked together to design a rule everyone could agree with (more or less.)
The solution? "Cell phone lockers" built, designed, and personalized by the students. When they come in to class, the cell goes in the small shelf by the door for easy access when needed, without being distracting.

I thought the implications of this process were pretty awesome.

Teach Science Right said...

I also feel that at our staff meetings, I play a similar voice. I think it would be great if students could use cell-phones in class - it would allow us to tackle so many things that we currently cannot because of the resources that we don't have. Yet many of my colleagues are unawares to the potential good in it, and only focused on "the greater workload it will put on them"... to monitor the students - something they already should be doing properly! Many of our school's rules are for the teachers, rather than what's in the best interest of the students

Unknown said...

I know exactly how you feel and precisely what it is like to be the “bad guy” because I enforce the rules. Yes, we have rules that I deem to be silly, but those are the rules that the administration or the teachers said were important, but they become a problem when some staff either ignore the rule or worse, blatantly do the opposite. Like you I often feel that the problem with most rules is not the students, but with the teachers.

On a side note, it is even worse if the administration will not do anything about the teachers who do not follow the rules. (Note to administrators, please tell the people who ARE breaking the rules, do not send an email to everyone.)

As for cell phones, we need to learn to make technology and communication inside of school more closely resemble those outside of school.

mmshepherds said...

Bravo. And ditto.