The Rule

One of the most common classroom problems is managing late students. At the start of every semester I always give the standard speech, “students who are on time and in class do better than students who are late or absent.” I tell them that the students who fail my classes are always in this category. Everyone solemnly agrees they will be on time, yet within a week the pattern will start. Students fall into one of three categories. 1. Those who show up on time because of the act of monitoring them, 2. those who actively resist being on time, and 3. those who choose to be on time because they have internalized the rule.

Group one practices conformity to the rule just to avoid a consequence, or in the words of one student “so that mum does not freak out.” However, if I stopped monitoring or their parents went soft on privileges such as video games and cell phone use then they would be influenced to show up late more often. External motivation is needed because they have not yet internalized the rule and their has been no real heart change.

A lot of students practice conformity to the rule just to avoid a consequence, or in the words of one student “so that mum does not freak out.”

Group two students are those who are engaged in resisting the rule. This might be anything from skimming five minutes off the start of each class to much longer periods of time. Students who habitually resist the rule are often those individuals who are struggling in both academic and home life. I always weigh the difficulties they are facing as I try to use monitoring, consequences, and reminders to improve their hit rate. When I sense they are at least trying to make an effort, I am more likely to overlook their less than perfect success. What matters is the direction they are going rather than a perfect score.

Students who habitually resist the rule are often those individuals who are struggling in academic and home life. I always weigh the difficulties they are facing as I try to use monitoring, consequences and reminders to improve their hit rate.

For habitually late students, I usually start with light consequences such as the awkward talk in the hallway, followed by the call home. Let’s be honest immediate improvement is usually only short lived and at risk students have heard the basic teacher script so many times that it is background noise. I like to experiment with off-script ideas to see if I can get a different result. One strategy involved a series of questionnaires asking students to list five reasons life would be better off if they were on time. The next day, I might change the questions to five reasons they would tell their future self to be on time, or some other variation. A memorable student received four versions of this half baked strategy before he finally decided to show up on time (at least for a couple of days) because he couldn’t take any more questionnaires.

Let’s be honest immediate improvement is usually only short lived and at risk students have heard the basic teacher script so many times that its background noise.

Group three are those who are in agreement with the rule, or are at least on automatic pilot when the bell rings. Quite remarkably, a large number of such students exist and show up everyday on time. They have taken the external monitoring and accepted its intent and they will quietly show up for attendance even when it’s not absolutely clear it’s necessary, such as at the end of a public assembly when most people wander off for a few free extra un-monitored minutes. Such students have absorbed a lesson that will pay dividends in all areas of their life.

A police office jumped out of an unmarked car and flagged me down almost causing an accident in the process. My initial adrenaline fuelled reaction was to fight the ticket in protest…

A few years ago I received a ticket for continuing to drive straight where I was supposed to turn left. A police office jumped out of an unmarked car and flagged me down almost causing an accident in the process. My initial adrenaline fuelled reaction was to contest the ticket in protest, but after some thought I decided to absorb the consequence and just pay the fine for the simple reason that I was wrong. By learning from the consequence I was agreeing that the intent of the rule was good. My decision was based on what I was learning from my students. In the classroom, I try to impose basic structure and rules, such as being on time, yet everyday students do their best to wiggle out of the expectations. My goal is to move students from conformity to internalizing that the rule is essentially good. What they don’t always realize is that they need this skill to do well in life, both in my classroom, and future forms of employment and other social activities. Managing our own behaviour and growing in self control leads to greater maturity while immaturity always leads to being managed by others. The Rule comes first, but the goal is maturity and self control.

Classroom FAQ

Everyday in the classroom I answer the same common questions over and over. Some of the top choices include:

1. What do I do when I’m done?
2. Is this good enough?
3. Can I get a drink of water?
4. When will I ever need this?
5. Is this for marks?
6. What did I miss?

Here is my brief interpretation:

What do I do when I’m done? can often mean, “is it ok to do nothing?” 

Is this good enough? often this means have I done enough work or I can I stop working now.

Can I get a drink of water, go to my locker, bathroom etc?, often just means I need a break from what we are currently doing.

When will I ever need this? just means  this work is completely irrelevant to my life

Is this for marks? of course means, do i really need to do this?

What did I miss? is often a polite way of asking do I actually have to make up work?

All six questions connect with the underlying theme of work and work ethic which is an ever present reality in the classroom. One of the key tasks of moving from adolescence to adulthood is developing and taking responsibility for work. As a teacher, part of my role is helping students develop and practice their own work ethic. Let’s face it: this task is not glamorous and is a bit like teaching someone to choose broccoli over potato chips. Why would anyone make such a choice? Surely not for mere marks. No, we make hard choices to get a better outcome later.

Some students are planning on being rock stars and Instagram celebrities of one form or another. While I would certainly encourage students to follow their bliss, unfortunately I’m also in the business of teaching the general necessity of getting stuff done. This is a general life learning skill that has to be practiced to grow. Learning this lesson is foundational to many other lessons, which is why I’m going to need that assignment by the end of the day.