Why Ideas You “Beg, Borrow, and Steal” from Other Teachers May Not Work in Your Classroom

Messy Teacher Desk

You’ve likely heard someone say that teachers should “beg, borrow, and steal.” Another variation is that “teachers are the worst thieves.” (These suggestions are sometimes accompanied by a little laugh—maybe because teachers are presumed to be natural rule followers? Lots to unpack there, but that’s for another day.)

As with a lot of teaching advice, the basic premise of the suggestion is useful: The teachers around you have developed procedures and tricks through years of experience. There’s a good chance that one of them has found a solution to whatever problem you’re dealing with. There is no honor in reinventing the wheel.

But—also as with a lot of teaching advice—the “beg, borrow, steal” nugget only takes you so far.

Ideas you “beg, borrow, or steal” from other teachers may fall flat when you first try them in your classroom—especially at first.

The strategies in a fellow teacher’s bag of tricks are often inseparable from the teacher’s personality—and they’re often more complex than they sound.

A colleague once shared a story in the teachers’ lounge about whipping out her cell phone and calling a kid’s grandmother right from class while he was misbehaving. The details were music to my classroom-management-weary ears, full of “yes ma’ams,” and an embarrassed student who never did that again. Later, I got my own lounge-worthy tale: I called a student’s mom and narrated his journey in real time as I watched him skateboard away from the school while he was supposed to be in my class. When he got to his own front door, she was waiting for him.

Oh, the joy of these perfect stories.

Less-often shared are the boring background details: I’d already talked to this mother about her son’s attendance numerous times; she’d been expecting a call like this. The teacher who called the kid’s grandmother already knew that grandmother from church. In other words, there were predictable elements to these stories that we’d already locked down.

Those details might not be important when entertaining an audience—but they’re crucial for a listener who’s hoping to mine one of these stories for teaching strategies.

The truth about the sassy whip-out-the-phone-during-class move is that it usually isn’t a great idea. The more likely outcomes are that nobody will answer the phone, or the class will be embarrassingly loud on the teacher’s end of the line, or the troublemaker will get on the phone, talk his way out of trouble and sit back down with a smirk.

Your students are different from the students of the teacher next door.

Even students who look similar on paper aren’t the same students. Each of your students is a variable that affects the chemistry of the classroom. The more experience a teacher has, the more combinations of these variables they have dealt with—but that doesn’t mean they won’t have students who push their buttons or test their limitations. In Office Hours, I sometimes help newer teachers shape their classroom management strategies, but I also speak with experienced teachers who have years of success under their belts and want to talk through strategies for this year’s group, or that one kid.

It’s not just your students who are different; you are different.

No matter how righteous your intentions, your strengths and weaknesses as a human tend to carry over into your teaching.

My first year as a teacher, my fourth-grade classroom was next door to a teacher who had excellent classroom management. He had an engaging teaching style. He was also six foot four, with a deep, booming voice. He coached high school basketball. Before becoming a teacher, he’d been a prison guard.

From what I could tell, the way this teacher’s classroom-management system worked went something like this: He would look at a misbehaving student from anywhere in the room and say something like, “Son, if you make me come over there…”

Then, he would just stop the sentence right there.

The kid would stay quiet for the rest of the day.

I had heard the enthusiastic advice that teachers should “beg, borrow, and steal” ideas from other teachers, and decided to try this in my own classroom.

This is how I learned that if you are a twenty-two-and-a-half-year-old woman with a non-booming voice, and you begin a sentence with, “Son, if you make me come over there. . .” the kid you are talking to actually expects you to finish the sentence.

That was a problem for me. I didn’t know how the sentence was supposed to end.

The scene in my classroom went something like this:

Me (in my most authoritative voice): Son, if you make me come over there…

Kid: (Looks at me with surprise and expectation, but definitely not fear.)

Me: (in a much less authoritative voice): I’m going to. . . um . . . put an extra check mark? On your conduct folder?”

There were classrooms where even this threat might have worked.

I knew this because I had originally borrowed the idea of conduct folders from a different colleague, who also had excellent classroom management. This colleague was about my size and didn’t have a booming voice. But she was very organized. Her classroom looked like an Office Depot commercial. She filled out the conduct folders every afternoon and sent them home consistently every Friday. Her kids were terrified to take home a bad conduct grade.

In my class, things were a little different. There was a lot going on in the afternoons in my classroom. Sometimes, in the confusion I forgot to fill out the conduct folders.

Actually, I almost always forgot to fill out the conduct folders.

It turns out that for a fourth grader, the idea of maybe taking home a bad conduct grade, if the teacher remembers, when your parents may have already forgotten that they are supposed to even look for this folder, is not such a big threat.

I don’t remember exactly what the kid was doing that made me so mad that day. But I’m pretty sure he kept doing it.

This story has a happy ending, though.

Over time, I was able to adapt this idea to work with one of my teaching strengths and compensate for one of my teaching weaknesses.

One of my weaknesses as a teacher was my forgetfulness in the afternoons.

I’d made multiple resolutions to get better at this and none of them had worked. I was starting to realize that this was unlikely to change. To this day, if I’m hoping to remember something during a time when I’m tired, distracted, or both, there better be multiple reminders on my phone. Anything that depended on me remembering something during the last fifteen minutes of every school day was likely to slip into the good-intention abyss.

One of my strengths as a teacher was that I’d already successfully organized my students into teams.

This was one system I’d already ironed out. The kids were seated in teams and were used to being lined up by team. The front of the line was definitely the VIP section.

To help me remember the conduct folders, I started a contest where the kid who reminded me about the conduct folders at the end of the day would “get” to help fill them in and pass them out. Not every kid was interested in this privilege, but enough of them were. And whoever filled out the conduct folders earned the right for their whole team to line up first to leave.

And, just like that, my conduct folder system started working reliably.

On that day, I officially became one real, permanent step better as a teacher.

Which is how, over time, you become a better teacher.

My classroom management problems didn’t magically disappear. But they improved. And I never called a student Son,” again.

I also learned something about the beg, borrow, and steal rule.

The advice to “beg, borrow, and steal,” should really be “beg, borrow, steal…and then adapt.”

If another teacher’s routines fall flat the first time you try them, don’t get discouraged. You may be closer to making progress than you think.

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