Throw Your Classroom Rules Away, and Start Using a "What If..." List

Note: If at any point you want to see the "What If" list I used for my classroom, simply click any of the sarcastic memes.

In this series I'm going to cover some classroom basics, these are the things that any teacher who has been in the classroom for more than a few years probably takes for granted. For the most part, anyone willing to stay in the profession for more than a few years will eventually find their "teacher identity". This identity includes how you see yourself as a professional educator, how you manage relationships with your students and their families, and how you want the administration to view your work. All of these things evolve over time, but until you've made a conscious effort to develop and improve these processes, you're probably going to feel unarmed every school year. That being said, let's get into how I approached creating a set of classroom "rules", why I quickly realized those rules were holding me back, and why I adopted the "What if" list. 

Classroom rules are one of those things that novice teachers don't think they're going to need. And in that thought, I believe they're actually half right. Every classroom needs a code of conduct for safety and security reasons, that's a must-have. But, in that regard the school should have you covered. So the first step I would propose is to make your students aware of what the schoolwide rules and/or codes of conduct are. 

Once you've got those out of the way it's time to ask yourself (or even ask your students) how can I turn my classroom into a place where students learn? What does that place look like? What are some social norms that are usually observed in that place? I suggest you work this question out on your own first, ask yourself,

"Where and under what circumstances do I learn best?"

It seems like a simple enough question, but I'm sure you'll get 100 different answers from 100 different teachers. Some teachers will say "Library" or "Starbucks". Coincidently, these are environments with very few distractions and very little noise. Others might say "I get my best work done when I'm able to roll up my sleeves and work things out with my hands, alongside big groups with lots of constructive noise!" The truth becomes clear; when, how and under what conditions you learn best can change. So, expect your classroom to be much the same. Regardless of how the environment must adapt, so must your ability to enforce social norms.

"Where and under what circumstances do my students learn best?"

Your students answers will probably be as diverse as if you asked a group of adults. There is a lot of mostly debunked "research" out there on different learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc) but really the point I'm trying to make here is that there are usually a few norms that you can get your students to agree upon, but that shouldn't pigeonhole what kind of environment your classroom must be in order to facilitate learning. You're going to need to be agile, so lets start creating some rules...

Here's your first rule:

1. Never have a set of rules. 

I learned early on that no matter how hard I tried, a concrete set of rules (no matter how reasonable) just wasn't going to help my students learn. I found myself spending more time enforcing my rules than I was going through content. And, after much pondering I realized that this was because my rules were always statements rather than conversations. Here I am trying to foster critical thinking in my students, yet simultaeously issueing a set of commands with no recourse. 

This brings me to my second rule:

2. Create a "what if" list instead.

What I did was try to see things from my students perspective. I want my students to ask awesome questions, and I want to equip them with the cognitive, and non cognitive skills to investigate that inquirey, so why not create an inquirey-based set of "rules"? 

The what if list is born!

3. Add a few personalized "What if's" to your list.

First, try and think of 5 or so questions that students will probably be asking themselves when they get into your class.

  • What if I'm late?
  • What if I'm unprepared?
  • What if I have a conflict with another student?
  • What if I disagree with something the teacher says?
  • What if I have to go to the bathroom?

I encourage you to adapt my list to fit your needs, make sure that your rules aren't copy-pasted from the internet because your classroom, and the school around it is a unique place. And you students have unique needs. 

4. Play those scenarios out, and add your own voice

Now that we have a few personalized what if's, it's time to ask yourself, how would I respond if a student asked me a question like this? I'm a frank individual so my "What If" list is followed by whether or not the request is legitimate. This mostly has to do with the school I was in. Most of the teachers in my school were so overwhelmed that they mostly took students on their word, even if they thought the student was pulling their leg. Or, even worse, they had given up and would simply deny any request that took time away from their instruction. So, I put the onus on my students, I challenged them to ask themselves whether their excuse or their request was legitimate before they brought it to my attention. 

5. Add a little more personality

I'm not just a frank guy, I'm also quite silly. So, I added a few memes to my "What If" list and made the list available online. There are lots of reasons why you should do this as well, but if you don't have the ability to do that then use mine instead!

In fact, I would love to continue to build my what-if list, so if you think of any great additions feel free to let me know on social media, or in the comments below this post.

Thanks for reading! 

[Header photo credit:]