Classroom management; classroom discipline; student behavior; whatever you call it, these things are on teachers’ minds in July and August. Really, they’re year-long endeavors, but back-to-school season is the prime time for developing a game plan for a well-run classroom. If you read classroom management books, teacher blogs, or even just talk to successful teachers, there is a theme among their rules: less is more. Picking 3-5 rules and consistently enforcing them tends to work better than having a laundry list of things posted in a classroom and expecting students to really buy into them.
It’s from this philosophy that many teachers (including myself) employ the well-known phrase “hill to die on.” One thing I learned during my decade in the classroom is that you can’t fight every battle and expect to win. During my first few years, I tried to fight every battle that came my way and I wound up exhausted and defeated.
And my students suffered: they ran rampant and didn’t learn as much as they should have or could have. As I gained experience, I began to realize that I had to just let some things go. I’m a lot better at it now that I’m a parent, and if I ever go back into the classroom, I think that experience will serve me well in this regard. But as I grew in my teaching experience, I finally reached the point where I had to decide what were going to be my hills to die on. One of the things I considered was gum-chewing. My decision on how to handle gum chewing actually came about in a sort of convoluted, backwards sort-of way. I hate bugs. Bugs of any kind. And the last thing I wanted were bugs in my classroom. I never opened my windows, and I never left food lying around my classroom. In fact, I rarely ate in my classroom. I tried to eat in other teachers’ rooms or a staff room or something in order to minimize the likelihood of crumbs on my floor, which would attract bugs.
Well, my students wanted to eat in my room. This was less of a problem in middle school, but when I moved up to teaching high school, it was pervasive. I would have students that brought what seemed to be entire meals and would want to eat them during my class. Now, when I was in college, I did this sometimes. In fact, I remember I did it in one specific class because I had a full day and only had time to grab food from somewhere on my way to class and then eat it during class. But I digress. When I refused to let them eat in my room, my students would always spout back at me that “so-and-so” teacher let them eat in class. I could not fathom how any teacher would let teenagers eat in their classroom when they would undoubtedly leave trash and food behind. But somehow, in my growth, I realized that unless it fell under some sort of school or district policy, classroom rules like whether or not students could eat in a classroom were up to teacher discretion.
And so I began to find my hills.
One of my hills was food in the classroom. I will expound more upon this in a later post, but my policy has always been and will always be (at least I think it will) that no one eats in my classroom – even me. (I am very cognizant of not falling into the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” trap; if I require it of my students, I do it myself, too. I don’t let my students eat in my room, and I never eat in front of them.) So finally one year I decided to experiment. I was tired of fighting the gum battle. I mean, it was so prevalent: ever teacher I’d ever had and had ever known had made kids spit out their gum. Gum was not allowed. But I was tired of being the gum Nazi. I was tired of gum under my desks and on the floor and being found in places one just should not find gum. So I really thought about it. I had nothing against gum. I chew gum all the time. It doesn’t interfere with my ability to teach and as a student, it never interfered with my ability to learn. So why did we always ban gum? I looked it up; it wasn’t a district or even a school-wide policy. It was just culture. Anti-gum culture.
So I took a leap of faith. Maybe, if I allowed gum, the gum problems would cease. Maybe if I wasn’t constantly on the lookout to find gum and order it into the trash can, it would stop being put under desks and on floors and windows and such. Maybe if I just gave up being the gum Nazi, I could put my energy into fighting a different battle that meant more to me (like eating in the classroom). I was prepared for failure. I was prepared to retract my policy after the first quarter – or even first semester. But let me tell you: it was completely successful. I started the school year with my rules and expectations outline (again, a later post), and in it, I made it clear that I allowed my students to chew gum, provided it wasn’t distracting, stayed in the mouth, and went into the trash when it was finished. My students thought I was playing some sort of trick. I had at least 2-3 hands in every period ask things like, “Are you serious?” and “Really? You’re for real?” I assured them that I really was serious and that I reserved the right to change my mind if I started finding gum in inappropriate places. But I didn’t. My students chewed their gum quietly. They didn’t blow bubbles. They didn’t put it in each other’s hair. When it lost flavor, they spit it out and put in a new piece (the first few times I would get the side eye, as if to make sure I was really going to let them do it). It was liberating.
I had so much more energy to devote to other things than sniffing out gum. I even had kids offer me gum (which was sweet; not that I ever took them up on it, but…sweet, nonetheless). So every year after that I continued my policy. And if I ever go back into the classroom, I will continue it. I stopped being the gum Nazi because it sucked my energy away from things that mattered more to me. When I stopped devoting energy to gum, I was able to spend more time teaching and less time worrying about something that, in the grand scheme of things (for me, personally), was not worthy of being a hill to die on.