Relationships > Rules

Let me tell you about my first day of sixth grade, how it impacted me over twenty years later as a teacher, and why I believe building positive relationships are far more important than establishing rules when creating a positive classroom environment.

Before I can share what happened that first day of sixth grade, I have to provide a bit of context. At my elementary school, fifth grade students attended what was known as Writing Rendezvous, where they would meet with each of the sixth grade teachers for different writing activities. Well, it was a pretty cool experience until I got to one of the classrooms where I thought the teacher was a bit harsh and condescending. Not knowing that teachers communicated with each other, I shared with my teacher that this particular sixth grade teacher was “rude.”

Enter my first day of sixth grade. When I walked into my English teacher’s classroom, I realized it was the “rude” teacher from Writing Rendezvous. When she addressed the class for the first time, she decided to call me out by name and let me (and everyone else) know that she wasn’t “rude.” She said that instead, she was “haughty.” I replied with an off the cuff, cringy response, and she had me look the word up in the dictionary and read the definition to the class!

Here’s the definition I read aloud:

Blatantly and disdainfully proud having or showing an attitude of superiority and contempt for people or things perceived to be inferior.

Wow. That was a better word for describing her. By the way, I wasn’t the only one from that class to remember that first day… 

Just to prove that I’m not the only one who remembers this event, here’s a screenshot from my Facebook wall, about 20 years later (I had taught 5th grade the year prior).

The rest of the school year in that teacher’s classroom was a blur. I remember snippets of other negative interactions between her and other students, but I don’t remember any of the learning that took place. I did learn to keep my mouth shut and head down. I became compliant out of fear of being embarrassed again.

As the beginning of the school year approaches, many teachers begin to feel the pressure. After weeks of relaxation, recharging, and (hopefully) reflecting, it can be overwhelming thinking of all that needs to be done before greeting all those smiling faces on the first day of school.

Heading into my third year of teaching elementary, I can tell that this anxious feeling is something that I’ll likely experience every year. One of the thoughts that creeps into my mind before the beginning of each year so far concerns classroom management, namly rules and regulations, processes and procedures. Afterall, a good teacher runs a tight ship and has an organized classroom with quiet, compliant students right? While I appreciate order and structure (I was in the Marines after all), I would argue that when it comes to establishing a positive classroom culture, that relationships are more important than rules.

I believe that more time should be spent at the beginning of the year building positive relationships with students instead of drilling them with rules and expectations. Yes, rules and order are still essential in the classroom, and there is no getting around this. The difference in my approach is that I don’t subscribe to the classroom management strategy that says, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” I’m going to smile when those students walk through the door on the first day. I’m going to tell jokes and laugh with them, and I’m going to tell them a lot about myself and my life.

When students get to know their teacher and their teacher gets to know them, a positive connection is established, creating a bond based on trust and respect. Rather than producing quiet and compliant students through the use of rules, which are almost always communicated with a negative consequence attached to them (do X or Y will happen), teachers can create a positive classroom culture based on trust and respect, resulting in students who are committed to the teacher. The rules are still there, and they are still communicated, but students follow them out of appreciation and respect for the student-teacher relationship, not the fear of negative consequences.

Of course, no one would ever dream of recreating my sixth grade first day experience, but when we come in heavy-handed with rules and expectations, I believe the results will be much the same. Students will turn off and tune out. You might produce quiet compliance and have straight lines when walking students around campus, but at what cost? I encourage you to take significant amounts of time throughout the year (but especially at the beginning) to build positive relationships with your students. They’ll follow the rules and meet your expectations because they want to out of respect and trust that you have their best interests in mind.

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About the Author: Shawn Seeley

Father, husband, teacher, retired Marine.

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