Picking Battles

As a parent of a two-year-old, I am learning a lot about picking which battles to fight. This was something I learned during my tenure as a teacher, too, though. As teachers, we don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to deal with every single issue that crosses our doorstep. If we addressed everything, we’d be spending time managing:

backpacks in the aisle
bathroom usage
brushing hair in class
chairs tilted on the back two legs
classroom wandering
drawing on desks
feet on desks
late work
painting nails in class
pen color variety
putting on makeup in class
ripped edges of notebook paper torn out of spirals
saggy pants
short shorts
short skirts
sleeping in class
touching other students
touching the teacher
touching stuff on the teacher’s desk
trash on the floor
trips to the clinic
wife beaters
working on a different class’s assignment during your class
writing on the board

and so much more…

So what’s a teacher to do? You’d never get anything else done if you were constantly on kids about all these things. You pick your battles. That’s what you do. And it’s pretty much a given that your battles won’t be the same as other teachers’, but if that bothers them, that’s their problem, not yours. Kids may complain that “so-and-so lets us…” but certainly by the time kids are in middle school, they are mature enough to know that different people have different rules. It’s the same as being at their friends’ houses vs. being at home. My turf, my rules.

Here’s my suggestion. Pick a small number (single digits) of issues that you just absolutely cannot stand. Pick the ones that if you encountered them every day you’d vacillate between suicidal and homicidal. For me personally, it was backpacks in the aisle, feet on desks, swearing, and eating/drinking in class. (I really picked writing on the board, too, but I dealt with that by hiding my markers so none of my kids ever needed to be told off about it.) Establish your rules about those issues the first few days of school. You can even give them your rationale if you like. For me, backpacks in the aisle were about safety and having access to nefarious, distracting items during class. Feet on the desks (for me it was the metal baskets beneath the desk in front of them) was about potentially breaking the school equipment. Swearing was about respect (I don’t swear in my classroom – I don’t even say “shut up” in front of my students, and I expect the same from them.). No food/drink was about keeping away the trash and bugs (and because I had this rule and enforced it, I was absolutely okay with students standing outside the door for the first few seconds of class to finish their snack/soda – and they never abused it). These are the issues that you’ll have to go over again and again and constantly harp on, but it’s only a couple, so it’s not that exhausting.

Now pick the ones (should be single digits) that you HAVE to fight because of district or school policy (that you can’t ignore – like, I always ignored the dress code unless it personally offended me; sometimes I would make a comment to a kid about his pants or whatever, but by-and-large I let most things slide). For most teachers, things like tardies and dress code (at least some parts of it – I would NOT tolerate hats or sunglasses in my room) will be on this list. These are easier to enforce because it should be relatively universal throughout the school. To varying degrees, surely, but most other teachers will be on your side.

If you do this, you’re left with just a handful of issues that you will have to battle throughout the year. Let the rest go. Is it really such a bad thing if the kid wants to write in green pen? Is the world going to end because the kid is chewing gum (provided it doesn’t go under the desk…although in my experience, I’ve found that if I’m not the gum Nazi, kids spit it out in the trash can when they’re done with it, because they’re not trying to hide it from me). If a kid is done with all his work for you and he wants to do some [other subject] work, do you really want to keep him from being responsible?

Whatever battles you choose, you’ll have your reasons. And whatever battles you stay away from, chances are someone else will question your decisions. But it’s your classroom, your time, and your energy. Spend it in the way that is most optimal for you and your students.


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