Fighting the Fight – Are You an Enforcer?

We had our first snowfall here last week in southern Ontario. It was nothing like Buffalo, but enough to make driving problematic. Fortunately, our infamous snowplow folks had the school’s parking lot shovelled by the time staff were arriving so parking wasn’t an issue – kudos to you! However, something looked funny out back. Like really funny. Like…like…like.

Yes, something was definitely not right behind the school. You see, the blacktop out back had NOT been shovelled. It was this beautiful white canvas where kids could run, roll, build and create. Some call that a “maker-space” but I digress. A vast land of white stretching from the bricked foundation all the way to the fenced perimeter. Endless goodness.

When you stop to think about your school’s yard in the winter, what do you notice? We are so accustomed to blacktops being shovelled and large hills being made. You know, “king of the hill” kind of hills. The ones where the biggest, strongest kid claims territory at the top and pushes everyone else below. The ones where holes get dug to house large amounts of snowball ammo. The same hills that teachers “police” every recess because the type of fun kids have on these hills is not allowed at school.

We no longer have those hills.

We keep joking at our school about the definition of insanity. You know, expecting a different result from the same action over and over again.

Every winter hills are made by snowplows. Every winter kids climb these hills. Every winter kids push off these hills and throw snow. It’s fun. I get it – I would too. Every winter teachers scold kids – usually the same ones – for having a little too much fun on these hills. Ever winter we encounter a  “snow hill ban” of some sort. Every, every, every, every year. Every year we expect a different result. Every recess we expect a different result.

So we removed them. Hills that is – not students.

“Why won’t they ever learn?!?” Yes, that’s sarcasm. Sometimes I blog out-loud like I am the star of a Hollywood movie based on a famous blogger who says what they write in their head for the audience to hear because we can’t see the computer screen. I’m that blogger. “They” don’t ever learn because “they” are a different group of grade (4-8) students every year. Do you think they pass on a memo to the next group coming up saying “No King of the Hill”?

We decided the hills were the problem, not the students. Nothing, in terms of behaviour, has EVER changed on these hills. We got tired of the same silly fight so bah-bye hills.

Sure, I question the teachable moments outside as a teacher at the foot of those hills. But is it really worth it? What value do students get from a conversation about snow hill safety at school – when the kid really isn’t listening and says what you want to hear to get back on the hill! There is no such thing as snow hill safety after 3 pm dismissal. Go look at the local park on your way home.

The same logic applies to many outdated school rules. Let me list some that we have thrown out.

  • Intermediate students must go outside at recess.
    • Why? Duty teachers don’t even want to go outside. Removing this rule and providing a safe alternative means nobody is hiding in the bathroom all recess long and “up to no good”.
  • The hat rule.
  • Sitting on (desks, window ledge, floor, etc.)
    • Every time a teacher comes in to talk in my room, they hop up on a desk. Considering safety, its not crazy to think kids are human too and desks can be comfortable to sit on after hours in a chair. We purchased bean bag chairs and they are worth every penny. Even staff use them on PA days.
  • Working along in the hall.
    • Far too often teachers assume students will not remain on task if unsupervised and alone in the hall. We actually have more students in the hall than the classroom quite often. If they are engaged enough, the task will be completed. Ironically, we have had students ask to work IN THE CLASS because it was a quieter learning space than the hall.

I know I have listed some drastic and goofy rules – but I did so to make a point. Perhaps we should reconsider the archaic rules in education we still “enforce”. I still see “off and away” teachers texting themselves. Why the double-standard?

So I encourage other teachers out there to remove the snow hills. Whatever metaphor that is – take a risk. If you find yourself exhausted at night telling your significant other how shocked you are about a fight you had over something you cannot really control or explain, maybe the rule is the problem – especially if you keep fighting the same fight every time – expecting a different result. Nothing changes but your rapport with that student. School is about building relationships, not enforcement.

Sounds crazy, right? But think about it. Now I am not talking anarchy, so don’t go nuts in the comments. We need rules. Students need rules. But which ones? How about common sense rules?

We got tired of students hiding at recess and staff fighting with them time and time again so we created a “Chill Room”. A place for students to talk, collaborate, create, share, text and instagram (is that last one a verb?) instead of going outside. There is still a “duty” so what has really changed? I realize we need limits and so do students so don’t think we allow whatever the students decide. Just giving another example.

It’s a big step in the pedagogical approach to 21st century education. There I go with the buzzwords – contradicting myself from the last post. You know what I mean…..Don’t you? Pedagogy.

I can’t take credit for the snow hill removal. It was @icprin. His logic just makes sense so I wanted to share.

Stay dry and grounded tonight in this massive windstorm! (and code something).



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13 Responses for this post

  1. Brandon Grasley
    Brandon Grasley
    | |

    I’m a semi-enforcer.

    I believe we should follow the rules we put in place, and that we should only have rules worth following.

    I believe that we can have different rules in different places: you can eat in my math class, you can’t eat in the chemistry lab (you know, poisons and all that).

    If someone is breaking the rules, particularly the ones I think are valuable and appropriate, I call them on it and require them to change their behaviour.

    But the “semi” part of my enforcer status comes from the rules that aren’t so obviously useful. The Almighty Hat Rule in particular is a source of frustration, and I’ve all but given in on it. It’s winter time. Kids put their toques on at their lockers, or haven’t removed them yet upon entering the school. I’m in the stairwell and there are 8 students still sporting snow-covered toques. Do I stop traffic to deal with it? Do I report the student? Doesn’t any of that seem out of line with the nature and severity of the offense?

    So I’m reading your post again and thinking I need to effect some change. Maybe it’s time to bring it up with school admin and have a reasoned (i.e. not too passionate) discussion. Maybe it’s time for my students to make a case for change. Could work. It would certainly make me feel better. 🙂

  2. dougpete
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    Interesting post, Brian. In my first year of teaching, I remember our vice-principal taking the three of us new teachers aside and telling us there were rules and then there were rules. I still remember his biblical reference about choosing the hill to die on. Your reference to the hill brought that all back.

    It seems to me that school rules are an amalgam of historical culture, push down from the board office, legal advice from the Ministry, and direction from Health and Safety Officers. There are some rules that we accept with no challenge and others that are worthy of challenge. The last rule in a set of rules should be “When all else fails, use common sense.”

    My teaching was at the secondary school level where it was too cool to play on the piles of snow at the end of the driveway so I never had to come to grips with that. But the downside was that students would go to a number of classrooms, with a number of different teachers with varying rules. We had to deal with the inconsistencies of “Well, we can eat in Mrs. so and so class, why can’t we eat in yours?”

    Best advice seems to be “challenge everything” and apply common sense. Clearly when there’s safety at hand, it can’t be ignored. But, if we believe that school culture is a living, breathing, and changing entity, the rules that guide should be open to common sense review.

  3. Jo-Ann
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    Brian, I guess I am a rule breaker or worse a teacher who breaks rules. When I’m on playground duty my words are PLAY SAFE. This means rolling down the hill, climbing on the play structure, playing football, just play safe. Will they sometimes get hurt, yes they do but guess what? They still get hurt when we try to enforce our thousand rules. So what if they don’t want to go outside in the cold. Guess what, me neither. As long as they can do something worthwhile in the school, and that can just be socializing with each other, my classroom is always open. My students work in the halls, empty classrooms, stairwells all the time. They produce some of their best work there. Why not teach kids how to respect each other and not break the trust that we have in them? Why not give them a chance to prove us wrong.

  4. Lisa Noble
    Lisa Noble
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    yup. I am. About language, and the way students talk to one another, and me, and the words they choose, and which ones aren’t okay in this context, and which ones really aren’t okay, ever. And yes, that’s a hill I’m willing to die on, although many have told me that it’s not worth it.

    The things I tend to be a stickler about involve courtesy and respect. So, yes, I do ask my students to remove their hats as they enter the building, because in our society, it’s considered polite to not wear a hat indoors (at least in a public building). I have the advantage of teaching in a century-old building, so, my intermediate students enter into a vestibule/stairwell. I greet them at the doorway to my floor, with courtesy, and a smile, and their name, and if necessary, a gentle reminder to remove their hat. That means by the time they get to their classroom, it’s off. I ask parents who come into our building to do the same, with the same courtesy.

    I love that you removed the hills – that’s brilliant. We are currently without a head custodian, so our pavement didn’t get plowed either (he’d normally arrange that). I struggle with the snow stays on the ground rule, and would love to see an agreed-upon area where kids could kick snow at one another and throw snowballs at targets, etc – if they wished to, and only in that area – but that’s because I’m the teacher who loves being outside on intermediate duty in the wintertime. I’m a snow-lover, I dress for the weather, and I like snowball fights – but I also really like your idea of a chill room, and wonder how we could make it happen for my crew who never have mittens or hats or boots (snow in November is really awful for these kids).

    I think, for me, rules are also somewhat cohort dependent. My room has no desks (and right now, no tables – they’re down the hall at the book fair) – so if we’re working on something that requires a hard surface to write on, we have clipboards and counters, and lots of books. Some of my classes have no trouble adapting to the flexibility; some need very strict rules about how to get set up – it can be challenging, but it comes down to knowing my group.

    Pernille Ripp’s done some thinking about rules lately, too. Here’s her post:

    1. Cathy Young
      Cathy Young
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      Yes, yes, yes…totally on board with this thinking, and I implement similar methods of intentional, invisible limit-setting in my own classroom (AKA my home/my kids). However, in parenting it is referred to as pick your battles, logical consequences and live and learn! Through giving liberal reign in choices, but carefully lined with open, uncensored conversation and opinion sharing, my kids/students have grown to make their own decisions which have allowed for growth and independent thinking. Not to say every choice was the best one made, but every choice had a lesson from the outcome. And in evaluating the results of this parenting/teaching style, amazing outcomes have transpired… along with the development of strong relationships filled with mutual respect and tolerance, a certain sense of empowerment over their own lives has blossomed. The real evidence of success can be seen in my kids’ accomplishments…in my oldest daughter rocking out in her second year of Engineering; managing her time, finances and her vast involvement in extra-curricular activities…in my middle daughter’s above 90% average for a third year as she continues to work on her track dreams of making OFSSA for a 2nd year…in my son’s continual growth and dedication to learning, despite LD’s he may have, knowing that his parents/teachers ALWAYS have his back and encourage the independent decisions he makes from day to day; a true work in progress.
      Boundaries we create for ourselves as adults are not static…budgets change, jobs change, life changes! Allowing kids to begin learning this at an early age with plenty of coaching and conversation only prepares them for the real world. Teaching them to think and speak for themselves only gives them more experiences to test pilot for becoming independent and successful adults.

  5. iteachell
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    Sounds like you’ve been hangin’ around @Cowpernicus! 😉 I actually heard him speaking in some of your thoughts. Great post, Brian! “School is about relationships, not enforcement.” Relationships are built on trust. Show students you trust them. Instead of slapping down a list of rules, provide them the opportunities to show their responsibility, and practice using common sense. If we don’t, and are only expecting them to follow rules we enforce that they (and in many cases we) don’t even understand, how will they ever learn to use these skills?

  6. Nicole
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    I agree that there should be different rules for different spaces. It is real life. You can’t act the same at work as you do hanging out with your friends, not the same at the bank as you would at the park. If we don’t teach students how to adapt to different situations and different expectations, how can we expect them to succeed in life?

    Although there are many rules of school that I used to “break” constantly as a teacher (hats, gum, food etc), safety always came first. The semester was always started with a discussion concerning classroom expectations that I had, complete with my reasons for enforcing some rules and not others. I also worked hard to help students see why other teachers may need to enforce different rules in their classrooms than I did in mine. This simple task helped set the tone and allowed students a voice in how our classroom was managed.

    While others felt my rules were too lax, I never had to fight with students over the minor issues that didn’t affect how well they did in math. Time spent teaching was much more important to me than time spent enforcing rules, a decision I would stick to if I had a class to my own today!

  7. James
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    Madness! If not careful you could end up with a cultural shift! Next you’ll be telling us that you have less suspensions?!? Or that you’re students actually enjoy coming to school?!? Dangerous ideas, but at least you didn’t mention gum chewing, one could only imagine the ‘anarchy’, as you say, that would ensue if this were to be allowed. Madness!


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