Back-to-School Tip: Rules vs. Pet Peeves

Angela Buzan Education, Life in the Classroom

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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.


Angela Buzan is a full time English teacher in the Flagstaff Unified School District. She has thirteen years’ teaching experience and has taught all grades seven through twelve. In 2010, she received a Fulbright Teacher Exchange fellowship to Kolkata, India; in 2012 she achieved National Board Certification; in 2014 she earned a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Design and Instruction. Her current challenge is to out-read Gavin, in third period, who typically polishes off three novels a week.

Comments 10

  1. Leah Clark

    I’m laughing right now because it’s the third day of school, and the kids are still on their best behavior. I haven’t picked up a piece of trash off the floor or heard, “Yo, miss” once. Yet, you bring up a valid point. This kids do get confused as they travel from class to class from teacher to teacher all day long. Each teacher with their own “rules” or “pet peeves.” We must remember they are doing their best to meet our expectations and not punish them for silly offenses, but model expected behaviors and procedures and not to sweat the small stuff.

  2. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    YES!!! I hate, loathe, revile gum. But I know it is my hangup and it was not allowed in my class. However, the kids were generally respectful and knew I had gum eagle eyes and everyone was super used to me making them spit it out. However, I didn’t discipline kids for it. They knew how badly it grossed me out and just self spit it out if they forgot. I am very aware of my pet peeves and tell kids, but they are peeves, not disciplianry issues.

  3. Donnie Lee

    When I was in the classroom, one of my pet peeves was the sound of the pencil sharpener. I hated it. It was like nails on a chalkboard to me. I created routines which limited the times that it was in use. I basically had 2 students everyday who sharpened all of the pencils for the first few minutes of the day. When I work with first year teachers and discuss classroom management, I actually ask them what some of their pet peeves are. I explain that this is their work space and they will be spending 6-15 hours a day in for the next 9 months. I talk about limiting these annoyances for their own sanity. I help them plan how to turn these into classroom procedures as well.

  4. Amy Casaldi

    As a 5th grade teacher I find it challenging enough for students to learn the procedures and routines of the classroom as they start in a new room with a new teacher. Having my kids all day gives us all day to practice, learn, use some teachable moments, and build some relationships. I feel the luxury of time with my students when I read posts from middle and high school teachers. It reminds me of the unique challenge you have in building community in around an hour at a time, six plus times a day. This blog reminded me of how much time our students are spending processing the actions of the classroom and not the content, how much are we are overwhelming them with these procedures and routines?

  5. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    “Said another way, if everyone had a common understanding of morality, we wouldn’t need rules.” Love this sentence. At our school, those very three morals were backed up with detailed lists of expectations for behavior in various areas of the school. I found those lists easy to teach and reinforce because they were clearly defined. This year they shortened the list. We’ll see how it goes! I think we will need to develop our own examples in class.

  6. Treva Jenkins

    I was chuckling the entire time I was reading your post Angela!! All I can say is right on!! It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the things that annoy us verses what we actually made clear to our kiddos when explaining our expectations. I love you what you stated here–“Said another way, if everyone had a common understanding of morality, we wouldn’t need rules.” It’s only been three weeks of school for me and already the dreaded tapping of the pencil on the desk has raised its ugly head. This use to drive me absolutely insane, but once I understood the different types of learning styles and why some kids actually do this, I bought some pipe cleaners for those students; they got what they needed and I get the sound of feathers on desk…lol it’s a beautiful thing. Every year, without fail, this issue comes up for my new teachers/mentees and as you mentioned, my goal is to help them see the importance of “clearly, recursively, and positively teach and model it.” There is also that little thing called pick your battles that we shouldn’t forget as well… :)

  7. Sandy Merz

    I’ve tried emptying the glass of my presumptions this year and searching for the beginner’s mind. A colleague at work has inadvertently pushed me to reconsider my standard behavioral interventions. and your statement, “Unless every student understands and can cite examples of your expectations, you haven’t set them,” is a fantastic challenge. Thanks.

  8. Yolanda Wheelington

    This was a great article. I work in elementary so I do not “see” HS much unless it is related to my daughter’s school. I think this will help many teachers as your students are constantly moving and each class has its own personality. Since the teacher is the only constant, I think we often forget to consider this perspective. Thank you.

  9. Jess Ledbetter

    How I love this sentence: “The secret to a safe classroom climate is this: your room must be a place of predictable justice.” All this goes for preschool just as much as for high school. And really, this is great advice for interacting with all humans in the world. It’s not fair to hold others accountable for behaviors without talking about them first. Great advice for all teachers!

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