Rules, rules, rules for middle schools.

Students need structure at school. Create rules and keep them consistently. If you do, your classroom will operate with a degree of certainly and expectation. If you do not, plan on chaos.

My rules deal with living with, adapting to, and surviving the unique species of human being known as the middle school student.        

Kids need structure because kids have not yet learned to structure themselves.

I would love to have no rules in my classroom. I would also love to declare world peace immediately and win the lottery seven thousand times in a row. I have rules in my classroom because I do not want chaos in my classroom.

Kids need structure. In fact, they thrive on it. They yearn for it. Most students get it at home; some do not. But kids know that when they come to school, they’re going to get it. They know when something is going to happen; they know when something is not going to happen. They know boundaries exist, they know where the boundaries are, and they know what happens when the boundaries are breached. They can plan their day accordingly. All kids will expect it. All the concrete-detail students (the future engineers of the world) will love you for it. The kids who never see it at home will respect you for it. Some students buck against structure and gripe about it to no end, but deep inside they love it, especially if school is the only place they can get it.

The day after school gets out for summer.

I have had more than one student return the day after school to “see” what’s going on. I can see the disappointment on his face when he observes the desks are in disarray, the chairs are stacked, and I’m packing boxes. The bells that routinely sounded yesterday are silent. The schedule vaporized – as did the rules. What is even more astounding is that the kid I sent to the office a dozen times for gross infractions of the rules is the one who shows up the day after school. On the morning after school, he rose with expectations of structure and came to school only to find the structure disappeared – whoof! He returned to the one place where he could find rules, fully expecting to find them: a place to line up, a room to visit, a bell to follow, but there was nothing there to be found. So after a few minutes, he says, “Have a good summer” and wanders off to find something to do,  bored for hours. That kid counts the days until school starts so he can return to a life with expectations.

List all your rules.

I have twenty-seven rules in my classroom. They are posted on my website for all to see. I originally formulated a list of thirty-one rules after reading Ron Clark’s The Essential 55 (Hyperion Books, ©2003 Ron Clark). Mr. Clark’s fifty-five rules were appropriate for his situation in New York, but I adapted his ideas and rules for the West, and more specifically, for my classroom. His book was invaluable in formulating my list. If you have not read his book, sit down for an hour and read it; it will inspire you to be a better teacher!

Review the rules often.

I review the classroom rules daily and hit the top ten every six weeks. While I liked Clark’s fifty-five, I found that it was difficult to constantly review that many rules. So, I cut the number of rules to thirty-one. August, October, January, March, and May all have thirty-one days. If I review a rule each day– two on Monday and Friday, I can cover all the rules in a month. Further, all kids are familiar with Baskin-Robbins ice cream which offers thirty-one flavors. (This fact has no bearing on these rules, but I needed a reason to mention that my favorite flavor is Mint Chocolate Chip. I get a few B&R gift certificates at Christmas a.k.a winter break.) Later, I found four rules were redundant, so I dropped the list to twenty-seven.

Post rules specific to your situation.

The rules for the classroom must be written, posted somewhere, and they must be specific, especially for middle school students. Here’s why:

All civilized societies have rules. The middle school classroom society subsists in a space roughly forty feet by forty feet. For thirty-five pubescent children to exist within 1600 square feet, there must be rules.

All rules in a society should be stated and written for all to see. Since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and Hammurabi set forth his code in stone and set it in the central square of Babylon, this has been the practice of civilized society. (Whether they could read the code was another matter!)

Stating rules removes ambiguity. There is no mistake about what a rule says when that rule is written and posted. What the rule means is another matter for the courts to decide, but in middle school all legislative and judicial power rests in the hands of the teacher. So be it!

Stating the rules counters excuses. When a rule is broken, you will hear one of three excuses: “I didn’t know that was wrong,” “You never told me that was a rule,” and “He did it first!” Posting a list of rules counters the first two excuses. The third excuse is countered by the Whoever does it second always gets caught! principle.

By middle school, all students know that rules govern the classroom. This is not a surprise to them to have the teacher go over rules on the first day of class. Some teachers leave the rule-setting to students, but they will usually mimic that they heard last year.

‘Respect each other’ may be the most ambiguous rule ever written. You probably have it posted in your class. I see this rule in every school I visit. Here is why the rule falls short: First, the rule is not objective. Students do not share equal definitions of respect. One student may consider an action respectful while another student may consider the action inappropriate. I also find that the abstract concept of respect does not translate to concrete actions that make sense to most middle school students. Higher level thinking is still being cultivated in middle school. The concept of respect is too open to opinion and debate. Further, respect may differ in various cultures. Asian communities respect their elders by deferring to them; Anglo cultures may respect their elders by treating them as friends. Also, a student that does not see respect at home or is not respected at home has no basis to respect others in the classroom. This student adapts respect to mean: Do to others as you have done to others many times. Finally, some students are instructed at home to do whatever it takes to survive or get ahead. (You may not believe this if you are a new teacher, but with a little time you will personally witness it.)

Sign a behavior contract. Once the rules are established and explained, students should sign a behavior contract that states they have read the rules and will follow them throughout the year. This contract will be helpful later in the year.

Post your consequences for broken rules. It’s only fair.

 Rules make the student responsible.

People are responsible for their actions. My rules place the responsibility on the student to choose to do the right thing. Behavior is a choice. A middle school student should face that aspect of responsibility now. My rules also incorporate principles for living, principles for making right choices, and principles for doing the best you can in all you attempt.

Instead of listing all my rules at once, I will sprinkle them throughout this series like cracked pepper on clam chowder at Mo’s in Newport Bay, Oregon.

The Positive Behavior Movement

Recently, programs that focus on positive interactions between schools and students dropped out of the sky from Marshmallow Land and Unicorn Valley onto schools. In a nutshell, these programs state that students learn better in a positive environment (true), positivity is more beneficial than negativity (true), and all guidelines in school need to be stated in a positive way (not true – a negative.) The programs propose that stating rules in a negative manner is harmful to children and such negative rules should be reconsidered and removed. All rules should be stated positively. “No” and “Do not” should be restated. “Be respectful of others” replaces “Do not hit other students and make them bleed.” “Respect school property” replaces “Do not write swear words in the bathroom and draw pictures of penises on every picture of a statue in the social studies book.”

I agree with the premise that an atmosphere of positivity is more conducive to learning than the opposite. I agree that positive people are more inviting to be around than the opposite. However, I believe that some rules should be stated using the negative. I do not (oops, not positive) believe that all rules need to be stated in the positive. Tell a kid what is expected; state it positively. Then tell him what it looks like in the negative.

Most children will respond positively to positive guidelines. Some will not. As a workaround in this program, if I needed to state a rule negatively, I call it a “Do-nut Rule” (It sounds like “Do not.”) Do nut do this, Do nut try this. It’s the spoonful-of-sugar-makes-the-medicine-taste-like-sugar principle. It’s novel, at first, but at some point, I eventually had to say it without the calories. Some kids simply do not understand inference in middle school. I’m all for being positive with students, especially when so many students endure an atmosphere of parental insults and negativity. However…

One spring morning before school started, a brown bear wandered down from the nearby foothills and walked about five miles into suburbia and climbed a tree at our school. (He had heard about the positive atmosphere we fostered.) Seventeen sheriffs, all armed with either shotguns or beanbag guns stood between the bear and the students. (On an aside, I never felt safer at school than on that day.) All the students were herded into the multi-purpose room for their safety. When the principal’s “Please be quiet and all sit down” was ignored three times, it was replaced with “Sit down! Shut your mouth! The next student who speaks goes to in-school detention immediately!!!” It positively worked.

Sometimes, you need to tell a kid “No!” when he is about to stick his hand in the fireplace, run into the street in front of a huge, yellow school bus, wants to sell Oxycontin to his friends, or believes he should carry a gun to school.

Half of the Ten Commandments state, “Thou shalt not…” but they are not allowed in public school, either. Do not post them. (Ooops!)

©2018 Douglas Hanks. All rights reserved.

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