Classroom Policy: To Restrict or to Motivate?

I was on a flight this past week coming home from Colorado. And if you have ever flown, you know the benefit of sitting in the exit row. But with the great comfort also comes a greater responsibility. “Sir, I need a verbal confirmation from you. Are you willing and able, in the unlikely event of an emergency, to assist the passengers off this plane?” I just wanted extra space…you mean I might be putting my life on the line? While I was reading the safety flyer, a picture caught my attention that caused me to chuckle, then caused me to ponder.

Do not use on flights

The picture I saw is the one listed above. I couldn’t help it. I had to take the picture. Of all the things to never use on a plane, I get the first three. But the remote controlled car? There are certain rules that are enacted where you wonder, “Hmmm, I wonder what happened on some plane with some kid that this specific rule actually had to be listed along with “No lighters, no radios, and no cell phones.”

It was not too long into my flight that I then had a thought about how we often develop classroom policy. Too often our rules for the classroom are simply meant to restrict unwanted or unnecessary movement, sounds, or activity. And I get that – I have taught ranges of students from junior high to college and there are policies I have to ensure the learning process moves along in the right direction.

Ofttimes our policies mirror the graphic in this post: we create the “exception to the rule” policy just to make sure the disastrous never happens and all mayhem breaks loose. “Remember these 15 policies, class, and please do not violate them upon penalty.” Yes, unfortunately I have been there as well.

Instead, it might be worth your time to come from another angle. Here is one I learned from Maryellen Weimer in her book Learner-Centered Teaching. Get buy-in from your students – and this buy-in looks different at various ages. Ask the class, “In the best class you ever had, the students __________.” “In the best class you ever had, the teacher __________.” I do this with my classes and tell them up front that I want them to have a “wow experience” when they leave my classroom. What are their ideas about policy that can contribute to an engaging and successful learning environment?

The guidelines I set in motion either communicate “here are ten ways to ensure you don’t upset me” or “here are ten ways that will ensure this class is going to meet your needs and allow us to have fun along the way.” And please do not get me wrong – I am not against structure, just advocating for more intentionality in the development of the parameters of class behavior.

Sometimes we enact classroom code to reign in behavior. One example: this year my department chairs and I made the decision to drop the start-of-class and end-of-class bells. Yes, there was some tension over that as, after all, class bells ensure kids will be on time to class! Our father’s forefathers did it! Well guess what? My students are, with very few exceptions, on time, ready to go, and school life is moving along just fine.

The safety graphic made me laugh but it also engaged my thought. Are my class policies primarily viewed as “what prompted that?” or better…are they viewed as my strategies to motivate my students in a successful learning environment?

Community Input: How do you use classroom policy to motivate your students? 

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4 thoughts on “Classroom Policy: To Restrict or to Motivate?

  1. As a student recipient of some of the policies that you mention in this blog, I would like to personally vouch for the effectiveness of these methods. The bells, for example, allow the ball to be in our court as students for getting in to class on time. When I don’t have a bell to tell me if I’m on time, I am a lot more careful to get into class early in case of miscalculation on my part.

    I also agree that Weimer’s method of setting classroom procedures and rules based on what the students want out of the class is a great way to encourage those “rules” to actually be followed. Especially college students are more likely to be on board with those guidelines if they make them in the first place. We like control once we learn how to use it. That’s part of the teacher’s job: to guide students into personal responsibility.

    • Thanks for your response, Monica. And I am glad to hear you personally vouch for some of these methods. Bottom line, many times it comes down to a trust issue. Students know when teachers do not trust them and they respond accordingly. Conversely, I like Elmore’s emphasis that we need to try to do more things in class that speak to an attitude of “I trust you. Let’s work together for your success.”

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