Does This Impact Learning?

John Spencer Education Policy

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I have a reputation on campus as the “fun teacher” or the “loose teacher” or the rebel who doesn’t follow rules. I find this odd because my class is pretty quiet. There’s usually a gentle buzz while the students work. It’s relaxed, yes, but there is also a high level of engagement. When I’m talking, the devices are down, the class is silent, and most students are giving eye contact. There are clear expectations and students almost always follow them.

Despite this, I am still considered “loose” with rules. I don’t care if a student has a cell phone out. I hardly notice a dress code violation. I don’t have a rule on the number of times a student uses the restroom in a week. When a student is hungry, I allow him or her to walk away from the computers and eat something. I’m sure my students chew gum based upon the wrappers I’ve seen in the trash.

It’s not that I try to be defiant about school rules. It’s just that I’m more concerned with whether or not students are learning than whether or not they are hiding gum in their mouths. I would rather track progress toward mastery than track the number of times someone needs to use the restroom in a week. As a student walks into my classroom, I am not paying attention to the color of a polo shirt. I’m usually saying, “Good morning” or “Good afternoon,” or “How did your volleyball game go?”

The bottom line comes down this: If I’m thinking about rules, the first question should always be “Does this impact learning?” If the answer is no, then chances are it’s not important.

I can’t help but wonder how much time is wasted when schools focus on discipline issues that have nothing to do with student learning. I’ve seen teachers take ten minutes to force a class to march silently in a row until they “get it right.” I’ve seen stacks of detention slips for every student caught with gum. I’ve seen ridiculous power struggles that began with a question of whether jeans were truly navy blue or if they were, indeed, black.

But it’s more than just wasted time. When we focus on trivial rules, we send students the message that compliance and triviality are more important than relationships and learning. We create climates of incessant nagging. The end result is a quiet rebellion among students or a loss of agency in one’s learning.





John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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Comments 3

  1. Sandy Merz

    Starting last year I started using Dave Burgess’ one rule: Don’t Be Mean. I let my kids listen to music and don’t make a big deal about eating and gum. This year I’ve written one classroom referral. I don’t do a lot of direct instruction, but basically all classes respond when I say, “Guys, I need a turn, give me a few minutes.” Recently, I noticed that more and more students were using their devices for games and texting. I said I’d be thinking about not letting them listen to music if I had to be checking. That pretty much did it. I said the same thing about food wrappers on the floor. I don’t think management is a strong area of mine and I do have my problems. But I’d say that there would be rapidly diminishing returns of good behavior if I started issuing a bunch of rules and consequences. Moreover, a lot of student autonomy and trust would be lost. Just one last example. I used to DEMAND a note if a student was tardy. So there were a lot of rebellion and nagging as they would tell me they’re teacher kept them late and I could call if I didn’t believe them. This year I just ask, not, “Where were you?” but, “Should your tardy be excused?” Probably 8 out of 10 times they say no. Other times they say they’re not sure or else they just explain to me why they were late and I decide.

  2. Eve Rifkin

    Hallelujah John. Thanks for this piece! I imagine that your classroom is one where decency and respect are the rules that allow everything else to happen.

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