Imagine you’re driving down the freeway, barking Cardi B, and hand-dancing like you’re popping bubbles. You’re just in the HOV lane when you see the red and blues. You pull over, considering possible offenses: ‘I wasn’t speeding—did I forget to use my turn signal?’ ‘HOV lane! Oh no, what time is it?’ The officer leans into your car and says, “I…hate…that…song.” He writes you a ticket coded as “contempt of cop”.
As a driver who has received (read: earned) many a speeding ticket in my day, I’m willing to admit that driving laws are clear enough to keep scenarios like this one in the realm of fiction.
But doesn’t this kind of thing happen in high schools all the time? I’m talking about the difference between rules and pet peeves. A teacher posts and explains their rules but ends up enforcing ones that were never communicated. I’ve seen referrals for messy backpacks, doodles on math homework, and my all-time favorite: responding “that’s Gucci” during lecture. These invisible offenses are so inductive they are silly. Bless the poor kid who unwillingly laughs at the write-up!
Look, I get it: these things are annoying—but do they warrant documented behavioral intervention? Can’t they just as easily become teaching moments? If you’re really savvy, you might even be able to turn one into an inside joke and keep that kid on your side for the rest of the year.
The secret to a safe classroom climate is this: your room must be a place of predictable justice. Unless every student understands and can cite examples of your expectations, you haven’t set them. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but think about it: every aspect of teaching hinges on clear communication. It is not enough to talk about your syllabus, you must clearly, recursively, and positively teach and model it.
Each of your students has five other teachers who have unique rules and pet peeves. Add in the stress of social grouping and homework, and it doesn’t take much to get confused. While one teacher might whimsically require students to ball up their homework and throw it in the “Homework Hoop”, another teacher might panic at the sight of a paper ball. Additionally, some kids do not have rules at home. Instead, their parents reactively yell. For these kids, reprimands are normal.
I’d like to posit that the confusion between a rule and a pet peeve isn’t teacher error. It’s common for pre-service education programs to encourage new teachers to have broad and positive “rules” such as “Be respectful, Be responsible, Be safe”. No matter how cute these look on Pinterest boards, it’s essential for teachers to understand they aren’t rules: they are morals. Morals are generic descriptions of goodness; rules are explicitly understood guidelines for behavior. Said another way, if everyone had a common understanding of morality, we wouldn’t need rules.
So next time a kiddo does something annoying, tell him you don’t like it like dat— er, “we don’t do that in this classroom”. Process the action as feedback and move forward positively. It might be a learning model for you both.