My first year of teaching I made a horrible mistake. Okay, well, I made a LOT of mistakes, but the worst mistake I made was on the very first day. I told my students I didn’t really have any rules. Yes. Yes, I said it. They even asked me what my rules were, and I honest-to-God told them, “I don’t really have any rules.” I think I might have said something after that about wanting them to be respectful and do their work or something, but there’s no shot that they heard it. There are only a handful of things I wish I could go back in time and undo, and that is one of them. Most of the mistakes I made turned out to be great learning experiences. This one was, too, but I could have learned a LOT of the same things without saying that, and my year would have been a LOT easier.
Fortunately, I learned my lesson, and the next year I implemented rules. I don’t remember exactly what they were, so I know I didn’t do it right that second year, either. But the second year was better than the first. My third year I still didn’t have it quite figured out, and I had more problems (but who wouldn’t with over 40 kids in a class?). But then, somewhere, I read about a student “handbook” for the classroom. Some teacher I talked to or read their blog (honestly, it was almost ten years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where I saw the idea) explained that s/he gave their students a document at the beginning of the year every year. This document had all the rules and expectations for the classroom for the year. The students even signed it like a real contract.
So I did what any good teacher would do (or one who was trying to be better) and made my own! I had three years’ worth of behavior issues to work with, and each year I had kept a list of all the things that had gone wrong and that I wanted to change. I also wrote down things I wish I had rules or procedures for but didn’t know how to implement in the middle of the year when I thought about them. I spent some time (like, weeks) putting together every issue I could think of. Everything that had ever gone wrong in my room, everything any student had ever asked me about procedures/behavior/etc., all these things went into the document. I decided to call it the “what if” student contract. This is because every single rule or expectation was addressed as a student asking me a question.
“What do I need for this class?” “What if I have to go to the bathroom?” “What if I am late to class?” “What if I forget my homework?” “What if I feel sick?” “What if the person next to me is bothering me?” “What if I forgot a pencil?” “What if I’m hungry?” “What if I’m tired?” “What if I want a ‘free day’?”
Literally, every possible question I could imagine a student needing or wanting to know on the first day, I answered in my document. I also included my discipline plan (rules and consequences) so students knew what to expect. The document was long. I mean, really, really long – like 10 pages (5 front & back). And I didn’t know if it would work, but I was willing to try. I was nervous. I’d never really done anything that first week of school except start teaching. Of course, the second and third year I spent a little time that first day going over my rules and the consequences, but not more than half the period. I jumped into instruction right away. I didn’t know any better.
Year four, though, I decided to do things differently. I printed my rules and procedures student contract. I copied enough for every student to have his/her own (and I made extras, too, for students who came in later in the year). They were ready for the first day. When the students came in, I had three things for them: a student information page (What do you like to be called? Who do you live with? What’s your email? What’s your parents’ email(s)? What do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite subject? Etc.), a supply list, and my rules and expectations packet. After they filled out the information sheet, I passed out the packets, had students put their name on them, and began to read through page by page. I answered questions as they arose. I even had students model some of the behaviors I expected (coming in tardy, asking to borrow supplies from a neighbor, disliking the lesson, being angry with me, etc.). I had them model incorrect behavior (they loved that part) and then correct behavior. By the end of the first class I realized we’d only gotten through about a page and a half. We certainly hadn’t gone past page two. The next day, we picked up where we left off. It took the entire first week to get through the packet. Some kids got a little antsy that we hadn’t started instruction. Heck, I got a little antsy when I realized how long this thing was taking. But I was going to do my experiment right, so I plowed through to the end. Once we finished, I asked for any final questions and then had students sign their name. I put the packets in their student folders (I’ll have another post on how I organized student work later on), and the following Monday, we began instruction.
When a student asked me a question covered in the document, I referred them to the document. It kept me from having to answer the same questions over and over. Eventually kids either asked a neighbor or looked through the document themselves. If I had a new student enroll, the first thing they would get would be the same stack of papers students got on the first day of school. I would have students spend the entire day reading through their paperwork, ask me any questions they had, sign it, and then put it in their file. Every student who came through my door promised they would abide by my rules and do their best to meet my expectations.
My fourth year of teaching was UH-MAZING. It was like teaching was meant to be. I enjoyed myself. The kids enjoyed themselves. I taught. Students learned. It was magical.
I had problems, yes. I had issues, but they were manageable and quickly remedied. I continued the first week routine every year after that. I even did it in high school. Once I began teaching high school, I did streamline it a bit so that I could discuss the document in 3-4 days instead of a full 5, but we did NOT begin instruction until I was sure every student understood my expectations and what would happen if they were not met. Every year I would add to it when a student did/asked something I hadn’t thought of.
I also re-visited the document at the beginning of the second semester after kids returned from break. I didn’t spend a whole week on it then, but highlighted the major issues that had been weakening towards the end of semester one. One year, I even made it into a PowerPoint presentation, but I found that to be slightly less effective, so I went back to reading through the physical document the next year.
If you think this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It was. However, it was LESS work than dealing with behavior and management issues the entire year. I went from daily or weekly referrals and multiple administrators in my room for behavior issues in my first 3 years to a handful of referrals a year and 1 visit from an administrator for behavior issues in the next 6 years. To say it was successful would be a gross understatement.
Maybe you’re a first-year teacher anxious about classroom management. Maybe you’re a veteran teacher looking for a new way to improve student behavior and achievement. I encourage you to make your own rules and expectations student contract. If you think this idea would work for you but you don’t want to or don’t have enough time to make your own, you can use mine as a starting point and then add to in order to meet your specific needs. I know it will work for you as well as it did for me – as long as you put the work in on the front end during that first week and then are CONSISTENT in enforcing rules, expectations, and consequences throughout the year.
Have a great school year!