Eight Things to Consider When Creating Classroom Rules

Eight Things to Consider When Creating Classroom Rules

By Nancy Flanagan

As first appeared in Education Week’s Teacher in a Strange Land Blog on August 3, 2015.
Reprinted with permission from the author.


I once had a principal whose core beginning-of-the-year discipline strategy was insisting, in August meetings, that the first day of any school year should be dominated by reading, illustrating, discussing and reinforcing classroom rules. All staff members had to turn in copies of their classroom rules, before the first day, for his files. We were directed to hammer on the rules every minute of every hour for the full day. Skip the exciting plans for learning. It was all rules, all the time.

Eventually, it seemed imperative to him that we should all be using the same rules. The same number of bathroom passes per term. The same punishments for forgetting a pencil.  The identical set of steps in dealing with misbehavior–verbal / written warnings, call to parent, detention, suspension, yada yada.  He had lots of supporters for this idea, most of whom thought that kids were getting away with murder in other teachers’ rooms. Unlike their own silent, straight-row paragons of classroom uniformity.

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Those common rules were developed by a group of volunteer teachers (along with a common grading scale). And almost immediately, they were “adapted,” bent, nicked, cheated on–surreptitiously, then blatantly–and we started having heated staff meetings where teachers accused each other of thinking they were special and didn’t have to follow the rules. Eventually, the quest to standardize building norms was quietly abandoned (yup–a new principal in the front office).

I hated the building rules. Very few of them applied to me or the principles I found necessary to running a smooth, orderly community in the band room. But that doesn’t mean I hate rules in general. On the contrary . . .

There is no reason for teachers not to begin the school year with a handful of their own guidelines for behaviors and procedures. The current thinking–students should cooperatively develop their own rules, so they will be more invested in following them–doesn’t always work as expected. In a democracy, there are often structures, principles and assumptions that help us build functional communities. What if each new community had to create its own constitution and bylaws, with no models or obvious leadership? In order for that to have an impact, it takes time, investment and relationship-building. What happens in the meantime? Is anybody getting any teaching and learning accomplished?

Students often don’t know enough about your classroom context to make useful rules. Will you be mostly reading? Discussing? Writing? Listening? Singing? Playing team sports and exercising? Are your students simply too young and inexperienced with group learning to think constructively about agreed-upon behaviors on Day One? You may need to help them get organized. That’s OK.

Accept the fact that you are in charge–then, as often as you can, get to the root causes of bad behavior before dealing out justice.  Also accept the fact that you will, at times, blow this responsibility and the task of figuring out what’s going on with a disruptive kid. I once had a student whose brother had (unbeknownst to me or other staff members) taken his own life, in the school parking lot, the previous summer. The parents did not want this information to be shared with my student’s teachers. He was a rage-filled, unpredictable mess–and I tried everything, from cheek-to-cheeks in the hallway to humor to threats and reprimands, to keep him on track. Finally, another teacher whose husband was in law enforcement, and helped clean up the parking lot scene, shared his story. It changed everything–I was suddenly looking at a hurt, confused teenager, not a rebel. But by that point, I had become just another uncaring jerk of a teacher to this boy.

“Rules” imply consequences for breaking them. Which, in turn, implies that the teacher has “control” and must become the de facto policing agent in a classroom.  So be careful about establishing concrete rules (one missing assignment forgiven, per semester, for example), and associated concrete punishments. As a teacher, this is a recipe for backing yourself into an unpleasant corner where what’s good for one goose must be applied to a host of ganders with different needs and resulting after-effects.

When learning becomes dependent on following prescribed, posted behavioral norms–and subverting those norms becomes the most interesting game in town–classrooms morph from places of academic and intellectual possibility into just another place to “stick it to the man.”  (Or, conversely, a stage to demonstrate perfect compliance and conformity.) It’s very easy to turn your classroom community into a place where nothing important gets done because you’re so busy correcting behaviors, delivering consequences, and verbally praising the table that cleans up first and sits with their hands folded. Any time I enter a classroom with a stoplight behavior chart on the wall I wonder whether the labeler-in-chief gets tired of dividing his class into superstars, obvious malefactors and those for whom the teacher apparently holds out a shred of hope, the yellow lights.


Anyone ever had a class where every child, on every day, was dedicated to compliance and conformity? I have friends who teach AP courses where all class members seem to need zero management strategies (read: rules). Strangely, too many students whose #1 goal is pleasing the teacher and following her every rule can make classroom interaction go flat, rote, and even meaningless. A roomful of intimidated, subservient kids can be just as bad as a roomful of mischievous scamps. What you’re shooting for is a place where kids are comfortable, even enthusiastic, about what they’re doing. A place where they’re safe, but not intellectually handcuffed.

Rules (or guidelines–or procedures) can evolve as classroom practices evolve. You can’t predict every eventuality; some agreed-upon procedures will emerge as daily actions are established and unpredictable circumstances pop up. So–be ready for Things That Suddenly Need to Be Dealt With: What shall we do about this new fad of lick-em sticks or jelly bracelets? Who’s responsible for cleaning up fruit flies when they come out, overnight, in September? What’s our solution to muddy boots or a damaged piece of equipment? Have a meeting. Figure it out. That, more than pro forma rule-setting, will teach your students about genuine democracy.

The ultimate example for this kind of just-in-time collaborative thinking about rules is technology. Remember when calculators were banned in math classrooms, as “cheating?”  What happens when parents encourage their beloved kids to silence and hide forbidden phones, but keep them handy, in case of all-too-frequent emergencies? When did teachers start to demand access to those same devices as important le arning tools? There is no such thing as an evergreen, perfect-for-all-situations rule. Stuff happens.

So for all teachers who say they have only one rule–which might be something like “Respect all people and things” or “Think before you act”–I have this comment: You can’t mandate kindness and consideration through rules.

You may, however, have some success via doggedly modeling these qualities, over time. You’ll have the most success by genuinely liking your students and demonstrating authentic warmth.


Nancy Flanagan

About the Author:

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Michigan, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She welcomes feedback on her sharp-eyed perspectives on the inconsistencies and inspirations, the incomprehensible, immoral and imaginative, in American education. She is a digital organizer for IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America). You can follow her on Twitter @nancyflanagan.

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