Succeeding with Classroom Structure: Rules, Routines, and Standards
A classroom routine is simply a well-rehearsed response to a teacher’s directive. The alternative — the absence of a routine — is usually noise, milling around, and time wasting on the part of students, and nagging on the part of the teacher.
A classroom routine is, therefore, one of a teacher’s primary labor saving devices. Yet, classroom routines are not free. They cannot simply be announced. They must be taught and practiced. To get a sense of the effort that goes into getting your class to do as you ask, let’s take a look at the teaching of a routine.
TEACHING ROUTINES: A SAMPLE PROCEDURE
Imagine you are a fourth grade teacher and it is the third day of school. Today, you will take the class to the library. Before students can get to the library, however, they must pass through the hall. So, today you will give the lesson on passing through the halls quietly.
First, you set the stage by talking about how noise in the hall prevents students in other rooms from learning. You know that tune.
Next, before going out into the hall, you demonstrate visual cues, so you can pantomime instructions to students. A finger to the lips or mimicking zippering the mouth is standard fare. You also will need “stop” and “start” signals. One signal you cannot do without is the signal to “stop, go back, and start all over.” You probably remember it: the teacher solemnly holds both palms toward the students, and with a circular motion, points both index fingers back toward the classroom.
NOW FOR THE HARD PART
When the class is ready to follow your non-verbal cues, you head out into the hall. With due seriousness, you check the lines for straightness before giving the signal to “follow me.” The little band heads down the hall.
Now, let’s interject a note of reality. What do you think the odds are that this collection of fourth-graders will make it all the way to the library in complete silence? If your guess is “zero,” you show real promise as a teacher.
Halfway down the hall, you hear a giggle from somewhere in the group. Do you care who giggled? No. Do you care how loud it was? No. Do you care whether students in nearby classrooms were actually pulled off task? No.
You turn, hold palms toward the class, make the circular motion with your hands, and point back toward the classroom. Brace yourself for the pained looks on those little faces. Some students show disbelief for a moment before they realize you are not kidding. Keeping a straight face is the hardest part of this routine.
The class shuffles back to where they began. You repeat your non-verbal cues: “straight lines, zippered lips, follow me.” Off you go again.
This time, the class is two-thirds of the way to the library when you hear talking at the end of the line. Do you care who talked? No. Do you care how loud it was? No.
You turn, hold palms toward the class and give your now well-known “about face” signal. This time you see real pain on the students’ faces. Several students mouth the words, “I didn’t do it,” with pleading hands and looks of exaggerated sincerity. Keep a straight face.
Back to the beginning. “Line straight, lips zipped, follow me.” Off they trundle one more time.
This time, they almost make it to the library when you hear whispering behind you. You know what to do by now, don’t you? The pain registered on students’ faces the third time around is almost too much to bear. Bite your lip.
Old pros know this is the only way to play the game. Green teachers need to be reassured that they are doing the right thing.
By practicing the routine to mastery, by your investment of time and energy, you are signaling to students that this piece of behavior is important. And you are teaching them a thing or two about yourself. They are learning that you are the living embodiment of two timeless characterizations of a teacher: “I say what I mean, and I mean what I say” and “We are going to keep doing this until we get it right.”
Now, a note about standards: it is easier to have high standards than to have low standards.
To understand how that works, first you must realize that most of the reinforcement for deviant behavior in the classroom comes from the peer group. A student makes a silly remark and four kids giggle. The student who made the silly remark is reinforced by four peers for playing the clown. How can you turn that around? Simply practice the routine to mastery! As you practice, practice, practice, a transformation occurs within the peer group.
Let’s return to our example of teaching students to walk quietly through the halls. After you stop and start over for the third time, ‘the many’ start losing patience. They are tired of trekking up and down the stupid hall. When they finally lose patience with the repeated practice, they also lose patience with ‘the few’ who are causing it. The next time they move down the hall, when one of the class clowns begins to do something silly, he or she immediately gets “dagger looks” from fellow classmates. Sensing that the behavior is now “uncool” instead of “cool,” the goof-off quits the clown routine.
Finally, the class makes it to the library. In the process, the students learn that “quiet” means quiet. Only in that way, do the students learn to take you and your standards seriously.
TEACHING ROUTINES VERSUS ANNOUNCING RULES
Research has repeatedly shown that highly effective teachers spend most of the first two weeks of a semester teaching classroom routines. They know there is no free lunch. It is a case of “Pay me now, or pay me later. Do it right now, or do it all year long.”
And yet, the older the students are, the less investment we make in teaching routines to students. Typically, by high school, teaching routines has become rather perfunctory — often consisting of just a few announcements on the first day of school.
Teachers who do not make the investment — those who simply announce their rules on the first day of school — will spend a huge amount of time and energy bringing order out of chaos day after day.