I was never much of a rule follower as a child or young adult, and I never spent a lot of time wondering why until I started teaching. Young people, especially children, are endlessly bound by rules. For rules and procedures to be successful, they have to be intentional and relatable. For me, I never felt compelled to follow rules that I didn’t understand (and often still don’t). People instruct you to not run inside, but few actually explain why you shouldn’t. Teachers and adults are quick to point out a student failing to follow procedure, but are not quick to help students take personal interest in following rules. As I examine how I want to respond to students who follow and break procedure, I am also considering why the lapse in judgment occurred. I had a college professor once say people won’t do things if they don’t understand why they need to be done. If my students do not understand why positive behavior is helpful and why negative behavior is hurtful, they won’t be prompted to take responsibility for the classroom environment.
While praising students who follow rules and procedures is more gratifying than admonishing someone, it is not always easy to remember to do so. When I was a kid and good behavior or good work went unnoticed, I assumed it didn’t matter. When good behavior or good work was noticed, it was motivating because I felt that my teacher (or another adult) really cared about me and how I was doing. Caring about my students means I care about the good and the bad. Praising the classroom as a whole is not a negative strategy, but it is not a replacement for recognizing students individually. For individual praise I think it is valuable to evaluate why you are praising that student. Am I using the student as an example of good behavior? Do I want other students to replicate a particular student’s actions? Or am I simply praising for good work? Asking myself those questions helps me direct and create constructive praise. I discovered that it is also very helpful to praise students in private after an example of good behavior has passed. For example, I may tell a student I appreciate how he helped his classmate pick up books after his classmate dropped them, or I was proud of him for an improved subject grade. I think this demonstrates to students that I notice them even when they think I am not watching. Praise should not only be about public displays of good behavior. Good character is built by making the right decision even when no one is looking.
Addressing negative behavior is tricky and can be very frustrating. I think it is important to pick and choose your battles, but I cannot fall into the trap of believing the small things aren’t a big deal. Kids have a short memory, and I like to address simple procedural errors right away. I cannot tell a student at the end of the day he did a poor job staying quiet in the hallway. More severe negative behavior may need to be addressed in private. I don’t like embarrassing my students and never want to call attention to negative behavior in a hugely public way. Embarrassment and shame should never be a routine strategy for punishment. I try as much as possible to get my students involved in a discussion about negative behavior. I follow up with them by asking what negative behavior they are participating in and why they shouldn’t be behaving in it. I want my students to tell me what the rules are as a way of reaffirming what should be happening in the classroom. I don’t like the assumption that a student knows he is breaking a rule and is doing it anyway. As a child and a teenager, I disliked how many adults always assumed I might be intentionally doing something bad. Grace is a very powerful practice and sometimes someone needs a friendly reminder. As a leader, I want to make the right decision every time, but I understand that teaching is a practice, and I won’t get it right every time.
A quick way to decrease the amount of time you have to recognize positive or negative behavior is to eliminate unnecessary or confusing rules and procedures. Am I constantly fighting my students to follow a procedure that isn’t beneficial to the classroom? Sometimes we create rules as a fear-based preventative. We trick ourselves into believing that if you make the rule, the negative behavior won’t happen. The less complex classroom rules and procedures are, the easier it will be for my students to have a clear idea of my classroom expectations.