(This post is essentially for teachers of middle and high school students, but the general concept applies to elementary school as well, with the caveat that behavior modification efforts for elementary school require more finesse and thought.)
For starting teachers out there, I offer this advice for the first few weeks:
Take no prisoners. Offer no amnesty. Commute no sentences. Come in hard and fast even as you offer up the possibility of fun times later. These first few weeks will set up the rest of your year. If you allow disrespect, you will battle disrespect all year. If you sanction laziness and half-hearted efforts, you will see papers sloppy enough to make you doubt the future of the human race.
Enter your room with high expectations. In college, professors teach all sorts of cajoling, encouraging ways to get students on the right track. Up to a point, those professors are helping you with that advice. But a classroom is not a democracy. Encouragement only goes so far.
Take charge. It’s fine to let the class help you come up with the class rules, as long as you keep ultimate veto power. Some teachers start with just one rule: Respect. They brainstorm what respect looks like with their students, and discuss how to achieve a respectful classroom. Other teachers use canned rules provided by their school or rules they have cobbled together over time.
However you approach rules, though, you must set up a clear discipline plan, with both rewards and consequences. Post the plan. Explain the plan to your kids on the first day and review that plan throughout the first week. Send the plan home for parents to read and sign. If those signatures don’t come back, call home. If possible, all parent copies should be placed in a folder for easy access so this sheet can be a reference at parent-teacher conferences when needed.
If this post sounds a little fierce, I apologize. I always had fun with my classes. But I learned from experience that whenever I relaxed my rules too much, my students and I paid the price. Some flexing is inevitable. Sorting between real bathroom emergencies and desired cell phone breaks is learned on the job, and there’s an art to sorting out where the rules should bend and where not. When in doubt, I recommend not flexing. For the bathroom requests, tell students to ask you again in 5 (10) minutes. In a real emergency, they will remember. I have found many students forget or the urge passes.
Why this fierce tone in a post by a teacher who is an admitted Fluffy Bunny of an educator? These first few weeks can truly make or break you. The routine of the class is being established and that routine will prove critical as the year progresses. Five minutes lost here, five minutes lost there and pretty soon hours of instructional time will disappear each week. Some kids always try to take advantage of the rules. They are trying to learn the limits and every time a teacher relaxes those limits, the limits move further afield and further outside that teacher’s control.
Do yourself a favor. If you see the rules being broken deliberately or carelessly, issue detentions in that first week or two, if school policies and student circumstances permit. Give lunch detentions, even if that means missing your own lunch to supervise. In my experience, the most effective penalties for misbehavior involve loss of students’ personal time. Don’t let any misbehavior float past you. Unusually problematic behavior should result in a call home. Don’t be afraid to be strict. That strictness serves the greater good, and once the routines are cemented in place, you will be able to relax.
In the big picture, you want to teach as much as you can as fast as you can. Classroom routines allow teachers to teach without interruption.
Eduhonesty: YOUR classroom, your rules. Don’t let anyone convince you that classrooms should follow democratic principles. Don’t feel a need to justify the class rules to students. Many adolescents would vote themselves all day lunch, gym and recess if they could, maybe with an occasional art class to spice up the day.