One of the most important foundations for having a good school year is setting the tone of the culture and the community. By that, I mean creating a classroom culture where students understand processes, procedures, and policies. But some teachers are too focused on “the rules” or students following the rules.
Certainly, learning happens when there is order. But the opposite is true as well, if not more so: order is established when students learn.
When teachers enter the classroom on the first day of school, they introduce themselves and have the students share their names, what they did during the summer, and say one interesting thing about themselves, or some iteration of the first-day icebreaker. Next comes establishing the rules as well as routines.
I’ve done that myself, routinely. But last year, I tried something different.
Rather than gravitating towards establishing rules, I gravitated towards establishing a learning culture first. I teach AP U.S. History to tenth-grade students. Establishing rules and routines is important for sophomores as it is for 1st graders. However, I didn’t want my students’ first interaction with me to be an interaction with an authority figure laying down the rules and regulations.
I teach Black and Latino students. I am a Black man, and while the invisible tax says that I am the right individual to talk to “those” about rules, in addition to my enforcing them. But we live in an anti-Black society, and their bodies, minds, and spirits are policed enough… in school and out of school. The last thing those students need is a Black man policing them even more.
What they need is to have a Black male teacher, especially since Black male teachers are less than 2% of teachers nationwide, and a Black male teacher whose first-day (and every day) intention is to teach to cultivate excellence. Order will come, but excellence will come first.
I split the classroom into random teams of two, and on the smart board, I pinged from question to question to gauge their opinions and spark debate. The questions were engaging; referencing popular culture, human relationships, school experiences, and so on. The room was getting loud because everyone was having fun.
My role was that of a facilitator. I had to institute rules and order, but I did so within the context of the activity. But I also served as the chief resource; when students had clarifying questions pertinent to arguing their case, I gave those answers. The rules were important to establish structure, but they were introduced in a way that framed the classroom as a space of learning with order, as opposed to a space of rules where learning may happen.
My hope is that this year, teachers prioritize making the learning foundational to the classroom environment because order can best be established when the learning is vibrant, engaging, and eye-opening.
Because when students know that your class is THAT class (THAT class meaning the class where students know they’re being taught by a teacher full of care, knowledge, wisdom, and high regard for them, where they are engaged and poured into), establishing rules and routines will be the least of a teacher’s concerns; the rules will be a formality. They’ll be established and established smoothly because the students want to be in your class. Therefore, the transaction is one where the student believes they get the maximum benefit for minimum output.
They may not realize that learning, feeling, and growing is a participatory endeavor. But by the time they do, following the rule will be an afterthought. Not because they aren’t important, but because the rules aren’t the work, but a formality. The work is participatory where they engage with the teacher who engages them.
That’s what excellence in the classroom looks like.
Midway through the year, that very class that I tried something different with essentially functioned on its own. On research days, students began their assignments and prepared for debates without me needing to instruct them. They were aware of the daily procedures, and my role was to support their doing the work of research and constructing debate arguments.
On debate days, students entered the class, set up the room, and began their debates… I sat at my desk and prepared to grade while they all knew their roles and responsibilities; as debaters, judges, and audience members.
None of this happened because I was strict. It happened because I made my content engaging and laid out the rules of engagement within the construct of learning.
I don’t doubt that many teachers do this, but what can often happen, especially at the start of the school year, is an overemphasis on announcing the rules and establishing order. To be honest, it’s what teachers, inexperienced teachers especially, are told… “make sure your rules and routines are firmly in place… use weeks one and two to do that.”
I get it.
But if you want young minds to buy into the rules and protocols, give them something to purchase. You demand excellence of your students, give them excellence. Rest assured, they’ll meet the expectations and hold themselves accountable when the leader also holds him or herself accountable for an engaged lesson.