Imagine that you’re planning a dream vacation to an exotic location. You’ve found perfect hotels and booked great seats on your favorite airline. Now, you’re ready to plan out your daily itinerary. Preferring to experience a place “like the locals do” and wanting to do everything you can to do avoid looking like a tourist, you’re eager to learn what you can about the typical customs. So you start researching, trying to pick up some key phrases. To figure out where the most authentic food is served. To make note of the sites to see and the places to avoid.
But after several hours of hunting, you can’t find any clear information. You’re surprised to see that there’s no tourism board, and the only tidbits you can find are reviews from other travelers, but even here, what you discover on one site is contradicted on another. You start to wonder whether you’ve selected the right spot for your two-week adventure. Why wouldn’t a place that relies on tourism do everything possible to market itself to travelers, to tell its guests about how to best enjoy all that it has to offer?
The parallels to our classrooms —and particularly how we make (or don’t make) our “customs” clear to students—are abundant.
We want our students to have a meaningful experience in our classrooms, to thrive during their “visit,” to want to come back. Certainly, then, we should do all we can to help them understand our customs and norms, to help them fit in as members of the community and not to feel like outsiders. When we don’t show them explicitly how to make the most of their time with us, or when we neglect to warn them of potential pitfalls, we make it less likely that they will enjoy their time or fully experience the sweet rhythm of belonging.
Few of us need to be convinced of the importance of telling students our rules, but nearly all of us could do more to help students internalize them—to value the norms and practice them so naturally that students feel like and act more like family members than guests.
So how do we do this well? And how can we fight against our tendency to accept the idea that we shouldn’t bother?
In this post, we’ll explore the best practices for establishing norms as well as some of the common reasons we skip over (or rush through) this critical aspect of classroom management.
Line it Up
Work to ensure that your routines and procedures align with your school’s mission/vision/code of conduct. Consider how your norms can offer students opportunities to apply the principles your school community values. You may also want to make some time to chat with a mentor or other trusted colleague to discuss your ideas and check to see how they square up with the “living code/mission,” the one that takes the words from paper and applies them in your setting.
Tell Students Why
Explain your rationale for developing your norms. As you do this, frame it in a way that helps students understand the connection to the class’ goals and, ultimately, the way(s) in which each norm is meant to make everyone’s experience more meaningful.
Norms that stem from a place of legalism and a struggle for control usually crush people’s spirits. On the other hand, those that emerge from a thoughtful desire to help each student (and teacher) thrive will be embraced, practiced, and guarded by each member of the classroom community.
Model, Practice, and Praise
Like with all good teaching, you’ve got to take the time to model your expectations and offer students opportunities to practice what you expect. Keep practicing until students do it naturally and start holding one another accountable for following the expectations. Consider using videos, skits, role-play, and non-examples in your efforts to model and practice what you expect. Give each stakeholder a voice, and provide several means for giving non-threatening feedback to help each person practice the classroom norms.
Also, be sure to praise students when they do what you expect, but be careful here. Don’t just say, “Good job” or “That’s great.” Tell them explicitly what they’ve done well. Something like, “I appreciate that you were seated as soon as you came in and that backpacks are under your desk. Thanks for helping us start smoothly” not only reinforces specific expectations but it helps those students who might not be there yet to check themselves against the standard.
Prepare for Resistance
You will need a plan for how to handle infractions of the norms. Three big ideas here:
- Again, make sure you’re developing ideas that are aligned with your school/district.
- Think restoratively rather than punitively. How can you help the students learn the expectation and want to follow it, rather than make them feel ostracized or angry because they didn’t?
- Think about logistics and practicality. When it comes to enforcing your expectations, the best plans are often the simplest.
If you find yourself in a place where you’re saying something like, “After three warnings, you’ll lose two tokens, but you can earn one back by offering a sincere apology within two periods of the infraction,” you’re going to have your hands full. This is not sustainable. And creating systems that aren’t sustainable can lead to a lot of frustration—both for you and your students.
Talk to a mentor or some other experienced teachers to find out what they do. Adapt the best of what you hear to fit your style and students; check that it’s simple, and give it a go.
Involve the Students
When possible, there are benefits to involving students with the development of your norms. This can be done in lots of ways. Collaboratively developed class contracts are a popular approach, as are a list of class rules that are voted on from a larger set offered by the teacher. However you go about it, the key idea is to cultivate a sense of community among the students. Giving them a sense of ownership and helping them navigate some democratic processes represent desirable outcomes. Be sure to provide general parameters with which you’re comfortable and which you know will be critical for the proper functioning of your classroom, and then help students work together to fill in the details.
Remember that Change is Okay
It is likely that you will have to refine your norms along the way. This is fine. If you can wait until natural times of transition (Interim, marking period, post-holiday), that will help the change feel more planned and less reactionary. If it can’t wait, then do what must be done. In either case, be sure to communicate clearly with students what’s prompted the change, and use the principles above in developing the new norm.
I Don’t Have Time
I understand. And I feel this pressure, too. The desire to get right to the curriculum and start making progress through the course calendar. To start addressing standards so that students can begin demonstrating their skills. To finish Unit 1 by the date the team has agreed upon or the common unit assessment dictates we must. I know. The schedule is packed.
But this is really a pay me now or pay me later situation.
Take the time now at the beginning stages of your journey—which is when students are most open to learning routines—or spend the time later clarifying misconceptions, addressing miscommunications, and steering the class back on course.
Do it now, before you’ve picked up momentum, or wrestle later when you’re approaching full speed and when changing course will be much more difficult to do.
They Should Already Know
I would say most of us are guilty of saying—or at least thinking—some variation of this statement. “You all are _______ (fill in the grade level, age of students, or name of course). You should know better.”
You may be right. But let’s talk about a few realities. First, the word should is laden with our own assumptions. Saying that someone should be acting in a certain way presumes that he’s been told the expectation, understood its value, and had the opportunities to practice it in a variety of situations. This likely has not been the experience for all our students. And even if it should be their experience, it ultimately comes down to a simple truth: If students aren’t doing what you expect them to do, they haven’t internalized the behavior yet. So should becomes kind of irrelevant here. They aren’t doing what you want. So what will you do about it?
We can badger them about should, or we can recognize the reality of aren’t and work to change it.
That’s Great for Elementary Students, but….
This is related to the should objection but with some nuances. This retort deals with a belief that secondary students can learn routines simply by being told what they are, or by seeing them listed in a syllabus and having them addressed once or twice in class. More deeply, it’s typically based in two uncertainties that many secondary teachers face:
- I don’t want to/know how to model my expectations.
- The students will think it’s cheesy to have to practice, and they won’t do it. So I might as well just tell them and move on.
Among many ironies here is the fact that these sentiments defy everything we know about good teaching.
Consider how we approach teaching our content. In our efforts to ensure that our students learn the material and can make the moves that experts in our subject areas make, we show them lots of models and offer them plenty of chances for practice. We make our objectives clear and give formative and summative assessments to measure their progress, providing explicit feedback to help students grow. And this is right to do.
But when it comes to something like our procedures and routines, which we know will help students access the content and which we’ve already admitted are so important that students should know how to do them, we tend to skip over several important steps.
Regarding student resistance, the same principle applies. Consider how you help reluctant learners gain motivation for learning your content. You try to connect it to their lives. You explain why it matters. You show how it’s important to you. Rather than just telling them an idea; you make it rich with context. Think of all the ways you’ve achieved this: Acting it out, playing games, creating skits and songs, videos and posters.
You do whatever it takes, even at the risk of seeming cheesy. You do it because you believe in it. And this helps your students believe in it, too. Treat your routines and procedures in the same way, and you will experience a great deal of success with helping your students internalize your classroom norms.
You will offer them a clear set of guidelines for feeling like they are a part of your classroom , that they belong there. In so doing, you will increase the likelihood that they will flourish during their time within your walls and that they will look back with great fondness on the journey you shared together.
Where to Start
Need some ideas for developing specific norms? Not really sure where to begin? Check out this resource.
Reach out if you need some assistance. I’m more than happy to help.