Why I Stopped Being the Gum Nazi

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And so I began to find my hills.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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