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.