The Struggle

In a recent comment, I asserted that a lot of stuff that matters to classroom teachers nowadays (and to me when I first started) doesn’t really matter. I asked a bunch of rhetorical questions, one of which Sarah picked up, mentioning that her school has Seven Universal Rules, one of which is no gum:

So at this point, when someone comes in chewing, I say, “Go ahead and spit it out.” If I notice it in class, I bring the trashcan around. I’m trying not to make it a big deal. But at the same time, what do I do with the rules forced on me?

Postponing any answer for a second, your last paragraph is great. “Go ahead and spit it out.” Nothing snide or demeaning. It’s pretty much 100% about attitude/tone in these situations and not about what is said.

Guaranteed: there is at least one teacher at your school – probably someone on the Seven Universal Rules committee – who takes those rules and wraps herself up in them.

  1. They give her leverage with her students when she couldn’t buy any by being fun, interesting, or clear.
  2. They give her a sense of self-definition when she couldn’t define herself by being fun, interesting, or clear.
  3. They give her a simple goal to work towards (the consistent enforcement of all seven) when she couldn’t grapple with more worthy, but complicated, ones like becoming fun, interesting, and clear.

There are a lot of smart folks on this here blogowhatever who would suggest in error that she craves power and control over her students. These people miss the greater point that she is scared. She craves freedom from fear. Power is merely her means. The eradication of fear is her end. Dismissing her as power-hungry offers no rehabilitative recourse except to take away her power.

Those are the teachers that every student dislikes except those who are similarly afraid. Power cures the teacher’s fear. That teacher’s structure cures the student’s.

The other students – those more psychologically put-together than their harried teacher – get a boring instructor who is professionally miserable (even if she wouldn’t self-report that misery) who has made a list of her seven largest anger buttons obvious and public.

My word. The fun those students will have at her expense.

You wanna see that teacher? One of her students took video of her awhile back. That sequence three minutes in which a student takes her box of Kleenex and she goes after it? The metaphorical significance of that box (which, to her, doesn’t just contain Kleenex) is unmistakable. Her student knows it and goes after it.

But if you aren’t afraid of your students then you’re in the best possible place.

You can enforce rules with calm detachment ’cause there’s no you in the disciplinary equation, only us and how much we can learn in a two-hour block.

You can also turn a blind eye to infractions ’cause that student surreptitiously chewing gum in the back doesn’t scare you. She isn’t chewing gum to piss you off, which is kinda the default assumption of the scared teacher.

Then two weeks before your evaluation you tell your students that we are getting absolutely crazy about these rules. You start writing standards on the board. You get heavyhanded with cell phones. You start caring about food, drink, and gum. You get a little meaner.

Then the day after your evaluation you get back to teaching.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I love the last two paragraphs – have you been in my room? I mean really, I’m not supposed to let them leave to go to the drinking fountain, yet I’m not supposed to let them bring water into class? I don’t get it.

  2. I think this video might be a better representation of a teacher totally becoming the rule. This guy is terrified of being disobeyed- to the point of taking physical action and screaming A LOT.
    Teacher Rage Video

    With the Kleenex lady I see some of that insanity but it feels more like the tired version of someone who is messed with all the time. To me she’s pretty beaten down. I’m not excusing her, but it looks like she’s being set up and it’s been going on for a long time.

    This guy, on the other hand, is more of a terrorist. I have a feeling he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to be funny, interesting or clear. There might be some yelling though. Yep, definitely some yelling going on in that class.

  3. Amy Hendrickson

    September 29, 2007 - 6:55 pm -

    And when you really have it down (and especially, in my experience, if you teach 11th and 12th graders), you don’t even have to get absolutely crazy about the rules two weeks before your evaluation. All you have to do is tell the class the day before that “Mr. or Ms. Principal” is going to be there tomorrow, but he or she isn’t going to be watching any of you. By high school, they totally get it.

    On the day of your evaluation, students simply see your principal in the room – they get absolutely crazy about the rules themselves for that day. Cell phones totally invisible, gum swallowed, water bottles hidden in back-packs or left out-side the door. Lots of hand-raising, sitting up straight, and absolute politeness from everyone all day.

    The next day you go back to little-more-laid-back, but always learning.

    Indeed, that’s when you know you’ve been doing it right.

    Good memories.

    Amy Hendrickson, Co-director and Teacher

  4. Amy, yeah, I’ve seen that in other classes. The students dig the teacher enough to pull together for best behavior on an evaluation day. Kinda heartwarming.

    Tom, I saw that same video awhile back. I agree with your assessment though I’m not sure a) which is the sadder case, or b) which, if either of them, is past the point of rehabilitation.

  5. dan –

    first: an aside back to that earlier thread…

    my immediate reaction to your post is: wow dood what a great administrator you would make. i’m sure that if one of those scared teachers was on your faculty you’d find a way to gently move them from the fear to confidence. (step one would be not having The Seven Rules…)

    you know that in most british schools it’s common practice for admin to teach a few classes as well…not sure if that’s common at all in the states, i don’t recall ever going to a school like that. but that could be a model for you to pursue.

    on the topic of RULES:

    i think it’s important to recognize the nuances of how rules work at different age levels.

    i teach middle school now, in my second year at this level after two @ high school. so i’m still learning a ton every week about how to design the lessons better…and i believe the best approach to discipline is to have the best lessons you possibly can.

    but i do think that there is room in the middle school classroom for clearly delineated and enforced rules…IF those rules relate to respect. i am a broken record when it comes to saying “don’t talk when someone else is sharing”. part of what middle schoolers need to learn is how to be a part of a community. and they actually LIKE IT when the rules are explained. a key is to always try to explain why the rule applies in a certain case, and what its effects are.

    dan – keep up the blogage. love it.


  6. People, people, people, Why on God’s green earth are we getting to deep into all of this?!?! I swear all of you typed your responses with Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” playing in the background (look it up Dan, you are too young to remember when that song was played over, and over, and over, and over, and over on the radio!!! I was about 12 when that song came out. Teachers LOVED it. Little did they know that us kids where like, “why the %$&@@*! would anyone sing a song about kids!!???).
    Anyway, about that crazy guy who went nuts over the national anthem. It was nothing deep at all (and stop putting pscho-babble meaning into it. It was a combination of two things:

    1.) The teacher is sick and tired of dealing with a bunch of punk-ass kids all day.
    2.) He REALLY needs to get laid!!!

    I’m outta here. Smell all you saps later.

  7. Jeffrey, “have the best lessons you possiblly can” is a great classroom management strategy, not just because the trouble kids can get in is minimized when they’re engaged but because creative, exciting lesson plans generate goodwill with your students which pays back big dividends every day.

    This didn’t get a lot of airplay at my otherwise-fine teaching college. I wish that instead of pondering the question, “Do I smile on the first day, at Christmas, or somewhere in between?” I had been stressing myself out over fun activities and a good style from the front.

  8. Totally on board with everything you said, Dan. But, I saw something else.

    The female was a Yearbook Adviser. I’m not sure if she was teaching her regular English class or not, but based on the open yearbook on one of the desks, I’m guessing that it was her yearbook class in which all of this was taking place. As a former yearbook adviser myself, I know that Yearbook doesn’t have a daily “structure” so much as it functions and flows like a mini-business with different groups of students working on their individual projects from the last point they got to, until the goal they set for the day. This requires a large amount of maturity and dedication (not to mention group-work skills) from the students and I’ve had a few students who have been in class only to play around. I’ve kicked my fair share out of the classroom too, but my principal knew what was going on and often saved me the trouble by stopping by and borrowing those students to come do filing for him or whatnot because they’d rather (no joke) throw pens across the classroom than create the index/identify students in candid photos/check the copy on certain spreads/etc.

    For the male teacher, it appeared to be military school. I can’t tell you what clues I had … but my gut recognized it since I had a good friend growing up who was sent to a military school and I visited her one day. In military school, they certainly can and do yell at you and make you stand for the national anthem (and worse).

  9. There’s a line in “Lean on Me” (the movie, not the song) where Morgan Freeman tells the janitorial staff to take down the bars in the cafeteria. “If you treat them like animals,” he says, “that’s exactly how they’ll behave.”

    Your examples don’t approach the severity of the situation he was facing when he took the reigns of that school, but if — even in a situation that dire — the first thing the new principal does to improve behavior is to reduce the number of rules, I think we can all learn a lesson from that.

  10. Thanks for the two videos of what not to do in classroom management…How about some videos that show a good lesson plan that is “fun, interesting, and clear?”


  11. Really Smart College Graduates = Really Smart People That Invariable Can’t Teach

    Smart College Graduates = Avoid Education Outright

    College Graduates = Immediately Attend Graduate School

    Those That Hold Doors Open for Strangers @ Convenient Stores = Good People, Teachers

    Isn’t it amazing that after all that snazzy education you’ve been able to pin-point exactly what it means to be an effective teacher?

    I wonder though, what message do you send when you immediately apply hand sanitizer after the last student enters?

  12. Phillip, unfortunately, in a two-minute video it’s harder to identify a fun, interesting, and clear teacher than it is a raging maniac. Not much of an audience for them on YouTube either. Shame.

    Ken, holy cow, shaking hands one-by-one is for martyrs. Don’t be a hero, Ken.

  13. Dan, Thanks for replying to my question. School has been…flexible…due to homecoming last week. This means that:

    1. I was so busy trying to figure out what was going on, it’s taken me a long time to reply.

    2. I pretty much ignored the seven rules last week. When the kids aren’t in class, when no one knows the schedule, or when I’m left in a room with the half of the sophomore class that I don’t know so that we can work on decorations for a homecoming float, I figure that any sense of structure provided by rules is pretty much shot.

    I’m still not sure about how far I’m willing to expect students to behave compared to how much I feel like I need to enforce rules.

    On the one hand, my housemate and I have informally observed that the students who spent time in the JDC program (where rules are super-strict) are our best students. They’re better prepared for the material (because they were actually taught in the past two years). They meet the behavior expectations.

    On the other hand, we’re both frustrated that so many of our students are missing class because they’re suspended. What do they learn from that? Miss class. Fall behind. Get more frustrated. Act out more. Rinse and repeat.

    Does having some sort of prior preference with rule enforcement help create the behavior expectation?