R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to you before making it your “only classroom rule.”

Messy Teacher Desk

You have likely heard a fellow teacher say something like this: “I have just one rule in my classroom: Respect.”

I’ve developed a few micro-rants about this statement—mostly for good reason.

First of all, respect is not your only rule.

Don’t you want students to come on time? Come prepared? Wait until you’re done giving instructions before walking over to the pencil sharpener and loudly sharpening their pencil?

Second, the word “respect” itself can be open to interpretation.

Does it mean “No cursing”? “Don’t interrupt”? “Don’t smack your lips and curse under your breath when your teacher reminds you not to interrupt”? Respect is important in a classroom, but teachers also need concrete, specific rules that are easy to enforce.

Finally, respect can be quite the triggering buzzword.

In the category of unhelpful and obnoxious things to say a colleague having a bad day, suggesting a teacher doesn’t have their students’ respect ranks right up there with saying, “Well, that would never happen in my class.”

All of the above still holds. But I’ll admit my opinion has softened in other ways. Recently, I’ve had conversations with a few different teachers who rely on just one or two respect-adjacent rules. These are people I know to be excellent educators with well-managed classrooms.

One of them is Zakia Jarrett, one of my favorite people to nerd out with on teaching topics—so much so that I asked her for editing help with both of my books. Zakia has just two rules posted in her classroom:

  1. Be kind.
  2. Try hard.

At the beginning of the year, she explains to students that, every time they do both of these things for the entire class period, she feels she has succeeded as a teacher. She also tells them that anyone can have an off day, so if they aren’t kind or don’t try their best, they can start fresh the next day. Not a bad way to set the tone for the year! (And not a bad thing to remember if your own first day wasn’t perfect.)

As the year goes on, however, she also gives detailed guidelines for specific activities. Before introducing a group assignment, for example, she will give specific instructions about how to behave while working in groups. She also has a grading strategy to make sure no one in the group gets away with not doing any work.

I also spoke recently with an elementary school art teacher who really does “just have one rule and it’s respect.” Students enjoy her class and do challenging projects, and I found it difficult to apply any of my favorite respect-is-not-your-only-rule rants to her classroom. Instead, I found myself rethinking the topic, framing it as more of a question.

What do teachers actually mean when they say respect is their “only classroom rule”?

After my conversation with Zakia, I suspect the reason is less about the definition of “respect” and more about the definition of “rule.” Really, there is more than one type of message that influences student behavior in a classroom. The lines between these categories can be fuzzy, and it’s okay if they overlap. The important part is to have all the bases covered.

Category 1: Classroom Rules with a capital “R”

This is the traditional list of about four-to-six concrete rules posted on a classroom wall. These rules vary from classroom to classroom, but often not that much. If you buy a rules poster at a teacher supply store, these are the type of rules that will be on it.

Category 2: Procedures and routines

This is a more specific—and probably longer—list explaining how day-to-day routines are handled in a classroom. How should students hand in homework or request a bathroom pass? What do they do if a device is not charged or a pencil breaks? Procedures are too individualized to print on a teacher supply store poster, although there are common types of classroom proceduresyou may want to consider. (If you’re looking for a starting point, you can also find the list of procedures I developed for my own high school classroom on this editable first-day-of-school forms document.)

Category 3: Instructions or guidelines for specific activities 

Activity guidelines are even more specific than procedures. They often apply to activities students do only occasionally. These activities may not even be introduced until the year is underway and kids have learned the basic rules and routines. Activity guidelines can also be part of the lesson itself. When you teach students how to collaborate or speak in public or be a supportive audience for someone else’s speech, you’re not just helping your class run more smoothly; you’re offering skills you hope will become part of their lives—and that might be part of their grades.

Category 4: Pretty much everything else

All of the above are important parts of the recipe for a well-managed classroom. But you already know there is so much more. The behavior in a classroom is affected by the school culture, the teacher’s energy level, the chemistry between students, whether there’s enough room to get to the file shelves without bumping into the last row of desks, how well the air conditioner is working, how many days are left until Thanksgiving break, and whether a teacher is currently in a shame-anger spiral because someone in the teachers’ lounge made a comment about how maybe their students don’t respect them.

So, should respect be your only classroom rule? My answer is still: mostly no. It’s a much stronger no if this is advice being offered to a new teacher with no clarifying details.

At the same time, if you’re an experienced teacher and this system is working out for you, there may be no reason to change it. Students probably already know they’re not allowed to sharpen a pencil while you’re talking.

And now, for the outro music you probably knew was coming.

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