The Rules About Classroom Rules

Brian Taylor

December 13, 2011

During his 1983 NCAA championship run, legendary North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano was asked by a reporter if he held "bed check" when the team was on the road.

"Absolutely," replied Valvano. "In fact, I just checked last night, and would you believe every single bed was there."

That story, although perhaps apocryphal, illustrates perfectly the dangers of overzealous rule-making. Too many college classrooms, I fear, have come to resemble Hogwarts under the iron-fisted reign of High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge, with a new edict issued weekly in response to some minor or imagined transgression.

Before you get carried away with legalistic pronouncements in your classroom, you might want to take into account the following inviolable rules about making rules:

Don't make a rule you can't enforce. I know it annoys you when students are texting or listening to their iPods during class. How dare they not pay attention to your wonderful lecture?

The question is: Can you stop them? College kids are pretty adept at surreptitious texting, not to mention hiding their ear buds under hair and hoodies. They've been doing those sorts of things since middle school. How do you plan to catch them, short of patrolling the room like some sort of angry test proctor on steroids? (Keep in mind, too, that just because they're texting doesn't necessarily mean they aren't listening to you. College kids are also amazingly adept at multitasking.)

Making rules that are difficult to enforce can quickly turn your classroom into a kind of mini police state, where you spend more time playing "gotcha" with students than you do actually teaching them. And setting rules you can't enforce at all is even worse. Essentially, you're encouraging students to break the rules—since, if they do, you can't do anything about it anyway—thereby creating a culture of rule-flaunting that seriously undermines your authority as teacher.

Decide what you can tolerate. Effective classroom discipline is often a matter of trade-offs. Sure, there are behaviors you don't like. But what can you put up with in exchange for relative peace and productivity?

In my composition classes, students spend a great deal of time on writing activities designed to help them with whichever essay we're working on at that point. I allow them to use their laptops because it would be pretty silly to make them write everything by hand when they're so used to composing on the keyboard and when the final essays have to be produced on a word processor anyway.

In allowing them to use laptops, I understand that some of them will probably be updating their Facebook status instead of working on their essays. Of course if I see them doing it, I'll say something like "OK, guys, this is writing time, not Facebook time." But most of them will never get caught, because it's too easy to click back and forth between windows. That's something I'm willing to tolerate because I believe that, on balance, allowing laptops in class solves more problems than it creates.

Think of the victims. I say that tongue-in-cheek because the truth is that many of the behaviors we legislate against in our classrooms are actually victimless crimes. We often make a rule against something just because it annoys us—not because it's actually harmful to other students or detrimental to the learning environment.

Eating and drinking in class fall into that category (in a regular classroom, at least; a computer lab, where thousands of dollars' worth of equipment could be destroyed by a spill, is another matter). Who are the students really hurting by snacking on chips or sipping a soda in class, other than those of us who skipped breakfast?

At most, when they're munching instead of taking part in the discussion, texting instead of listening, or surfing the Web instead of working on their essays, they're only hurting themselves. As long as students do those things quietly, I don't really see them as discipline problems, certainly not to the point that I'm willing to take steps to prevent them. That could ultimately do more harm than good.

Consider the consequences. Another question you have to ask yourself before making any rule is: What will be the cost of enforcing it?

Coach Valvano understood that if he held bed check, he might very well catch one of his best players out too late and have to suspend him, perhaps costing the team a chance to advance in the tournament. We might debate the ethics of forgoing such a check, but we can hardly question the rationale. Clearly, enforcing a curfew might have led to unacceptable consequences for Valvano and the other members of the team.

As teachers, we often have to make similar calculations. If we become the technology and food police in our classrooms, snatching up illicit iPhones and bags of chips and snapping shut laptop lids, who exactly is being disruptive? Who is doing more damage to the learning environment? The one quietly sipping a soft drink or the one grabbing it out of his hand?

Moreover, sometimes overzealous enforcement can create real problems for the instructor. Do you know if you're even allowed to confiscate students' expensive electronic equipment? What if you take a snack away from a diabetic student? Might you open yourself up to a lawsuit, or at least to a reprimand? Is it worth taking the risk?

Understand the big picture. Before you start legislating against particular behaviors, you need to become intimately familiar with your college's student and faculty handbooks as well as its policy manual.

In other words, you need to know exactly what you can and can't do in your classroom—and whether or not the administration will back you up if you attempt to enforce a particular rule. The next-to-last thing you want to do is create a rule that is simply going to be overturned by your department chair or dean the first time a student complains. The very last thing is to have a rule that's going to get you dragged into court.

Stick to the "biggies." For all the reasons cited above, I would recommend that you have as few classroom rules as possible and that the ones you do have fall under one of two major categories: academic honesty and (truly) disruptive behavior.

The nice thing is that, in both cases, you probably won't have to create a rule at all. Your college almost certainly has rules and policies dealing with those issues that you can simply copy and paste into your syllabus. That way, you get to avoid being the bad guy while at the same time dodging the label of Umbridgesque rule monger.

I recognize that there are situations that call for special rules, such as safety guidelines in a science lab or prohibitions against food and drink in a computer lab. But, again, institutional or departmental policies about those problems may already exist and should be clearly posted where all students who use those facilities can see them.

Communicate clearly. Whatever classroom rules you decide on, you need to make sure you publish them clearly on your syllabus and then see that every student has a copy. Many instructors also have students sign a form acknowledging that they received the syllabus and understand the rules.

But simply publishing the rules isn't enough. Go over them clearly and explicitly on the first day of class, with refresher sessions throughout the term as needed. I've found that, whereas a printed syllabus can be rather cold and impersonal, you can often take the sting out of rules by talking about them and explaining your reasoning.

Be consistent. The last rule of rule-making is that, if you have a rule, you must enforce it, regardless of the consequences. You can't hesitate, and you can't be selective in your enforcement. Otherwise, you might as well not have the rule at all—and you're right back to the point I began with.

A colleague once asked me if I have a policy on eating in class. "Absolutely," I replied. "I tell students to keep their mouths closed when they chew."

I think Coach Valvano would have been proud.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes monthly for our community-college column.