Starting the School Year Part 2: Succeeding with Classroom Structure – Rules, Routines, and Standards

August 25, 2015

Teaching Routines Saves Time and Effort

A classroom routine is simply a well-rehearsed response to a teacher's directive. The alternative is usually noise, milling around, and time wasting on the part of students and nagging on the part of the teacher.

 

A classroom routine is, therefore, one of the teacher’s primary labor saving devices. Yet, classroom routines are not free. They cannot simply be announced. They must be taught and practiced. Let’s take a look at the teaching of a routine in order to get a sense of the effort that goes into getting the class to do as you ask.

 

A Sample Procedure

Imagine that you are a fourth grade teacher, and it is the third day of school. Today, you will take the class to the library to meet the librarian. But, before the class can get to the library, they must pass through the hall. So, today you will give the lesson on passing through the halls quietly.

 

First we set the stage by talking about how noise in the halls prevents students in other rooms from learning. You know this tune.

 

Next, before you go out into the hall, you must develop visual cues so you can pantomime instructions to the students. A finger to the lips or a zippering of the mouth is standard fare. You will also need “stop” and “start” signals. But one signal you cannot do without is the signal to stop, go back, and start all over. You probably remember it. The teacher turns solemnly, holds both palms toward the students, and then, with a circular motion, points both index fingers back toward the classroom.

 

When the class is ready to follow your non-verbal cues, you head into the hall. With due seriousness you check the lines for straightness before giving the signal to “follow me.” The little band heads down the hall.

 

Now, let’s interject a note of reality. What do you think the odds are that this collection of fourth-graders will make it all the way to the library in complete silence? If your guess is “zero,” you show real promise as a teacher.

 

Halfway down the hall you hear a giggle from somewhere in the group. Do you care who giggled? No. Do you care how loud it was? No. Do you care whether students in nearby classrooms were actually pulled off task? No.

 

You turn, hold palms toward the class, make the circular motion with your hands, and point back toward the classroom. Brace yourself for a pained look on those little faces. Some show disbelief for a moment before they realize that you are not kidding. Keeping a straight face is the hardest part of this routine.

 

The class shuffles back to where they began, and you repeat your signals; straight lines, zippered lips, follow me. Off we go again.

 

This time the class makes it two-thirds of the way to the library when you hear some talking at the back of the line. Do you care who talked? No. Do you care how loud it was? No.

 

You turn, hold palms toward the class and give your now well-known “about face” signal. This time you see real pain on the faces of students. Several students mouth the words, “I didn’t do it,” with pleading hands and looks of exaggerated sincerity. Keep a straight face.

 

Back to the beginning. Line straight, lips zipped, follow me. Off they trundle one more time.

 

This time they almost make it to the library when you hear some whispering from behind. You know what to do by now, don’t you? The pain registered on faces the third time around is almost too much to bear. Bite your lip.

 

Old pros know that this is the only way to play the game. Green teachers need to be reassured that they are doing the right thing.

 

By practicing the routine to mastery, you are signaling to the students by your investment of time and energy that this piece of behavior is important. And, you are teaching the students a thing or two about yourself. They are learning that you are the living embodiment of two timeless characterizations of a teacher:

  • I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.

  • We are going to keep doing this until we get it right.

 

Establishing Standards

And now, a note about standards. It is easier to have high standards than to have low standards.

To understand how this works, first realize that most of the reinforcement for deviant behavior in the classroom comes from the peer group. A student makes a silly remark, and four kids giggle. The student who made the silly remark was just reinforced for playing the “clown” by four peers.

 

How can you turn this around? Simply practice the routine to mastery! As you practice, practice, practice, a transformation occurs within the peer group.

 

Let’s return to our example of teaching the class to walk quietly through the halls. After you stop and start over for the third time, the many start losing patience. They are tired of trekking up and down the stupid hall. When they finally lose patience with this repeated practice, they also lose patience with the few who are causing them to do it.

 

The next time down the hall when one of the class clowns begins to do something silly, he or she immediately gets “dagger looks” from fellow classmates. Sensing that it is now “uncool” instead of “cool,” the goof-off quits the clown routine.

 

Finally, the class makes it to the library. And, in the process, the students learn that “quiet means quiet.” Only in this way do the students learn to take you and your standards seriously.

 

Teaching Routines Versus Announcing Rules

Research has repeatedly shown that highly effective teachers spend most of the first two weeks of the semester teaching their classroom routines. They know that there is no free lunch. It is a case of: Pay me now, or pay me later. Do it right, or do it all year long.

 

Yet, the older the students, the less investment we make. By high school, the teaching of routines has typically become rather perfunctory – often just some announcements on the first day of school. Teachers who do not make this investment, who simply announce their rules on the first day of school, will spend a huge amount of time and energy simply bringing order out of chaos day after day.

 

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