In case you missed it, Tom Bennett recently passed the Dianetic testing and made all of the necessary sacrifices to join the Teach First fraternity. So, if you see him about and were wondering where his little fingers have gone, you don’t need to ask.
Apparently, neither the “this session is now full” message on the website, nor the fact that his room was at a capacity that had health and safety officers weeping into their Sippy Cups were sufficient obstacles to keep the masses from squeezing into every nook and cranny of the room.
By the time I arrived, there were more people standing than sitting, so I cotched on the floor because I’m a primary school teacher and that’s how we identify ourselves at edu-gatherings. The session was hilarious, candid and thought-provoking; a real highlight for most that I spoke to afterwards. For the 2013s, who have just finished their first year in the classroom, there was real comfort from, and resonance with, the recognition of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that we all felt until about Easter.
For the 2014s, it was an unpatronising dose of the realities that they are likely to face from September. A distinction was drawn between the formal and informal aspects of behaviour management, the latter relating to tone and persona developed over a career, and the former describing the systems and routines that can be taught quickly and implemented from day one. Some are lucky enough to get a headstart with the informal stuff, but without the formal side, all will suffer.
This post, however, isn’t about the bulk of the session. My blog is now widely read enough that a summary could seriously damage TB’s book sales (I received 12 views yesterday. Unique views.) I want to discuss here a brief exchange that I had with Tom in the Q&A session. It followed on from a comment that Tom made about setting class codes or rules. He argued that children shouldn’t be given an opportunity to ‘set the rules’ because we don’t really mean that they have a say. To illustrate his point, TB mentioned that he once asked a class what the rules should be.
Students (presumably old enough to smoke): “We want fag breaks every 15 minutes.”
TB: “Well, errr, no. No.”
S: “But I thought that you said that we agree on the rules together.”
TB: “Yes, I suppose what I meant is that you agree with my rules.”
In the classroom, just like in real life, there are rules. Non-negotiable rules. They are there for a reason: as a minimum to keep students safe, and hopefully to create some sort of optimal learning environment. Calm, ordered, stimulating. That kind of thing.
Although children might not necessarily agree with some of the rules, they have to follow them anyway because they are ultimately in their best interests and it wouldn’t be helpful to them to let them make their own rules, which would likely to be some variant of “Do what we want”. Furthermore, it removes part of your authority in the room, suggesting that the rules are subjective and changeable, and that your enforcement of them is only incidental.
When I was trained, and I think this is common, I was encouraged to give the children a say in setting the rules. The rationale was that children would then have some sort of a stake in them, or ‘an ownership’ of them. And this would make them less likely to break the rules and give your rhetoric more power when misdemeanours occur: you’ve broken your own rule. I know that you know it’s important because you actually suggested it. You’ve literally let yourself down.
I believed this, and duly allowed my children to come up with the class code. My school also has a set of 5 non-negotiable ‘Golden Rules’ that are displayed in every classroom. The class code supplements these rules and sets the specifics. So the Golden Rule ‘Do be kind and helpful’ leads to “listen to each other in class” or “hold doors open for each other”.
So when the time came, last week, to set the Class Code with my new class, I had a choice. Do I say to my kids:
(a) Listen, I really care about you, and I want you to be successful and I want you to learn the most that you can possibly learn in this class. To do that you’re going to have to follow these rules, and this isn’t a discussion…
(b) Ok, we’re going to be doing some learning together. What do you think our class rules should be? We’ll create these together because I think that it’s important that these rules come from you guys.
Although many of my newly developed principles pushed me towards (a), I actually ended up saying something along the lines of (b). My question to Tom explained the reasoning:
Me: You said that we shouldn’t let children have a say in setting the class code because we don’t really mean that. But isn’t it worth giving children the illusion of having set their own rules? You can still end up with the set of class rules that you wanted beforehand, but the children will believe that they have taken responsibility for their own behaviour and conduct.
Tom disagreed that this was a good or honest approach. I’m still swinging from one side to the other on this issue.
What do you think?