To dictate or not to dictate

I tried to stop a rapid flood with stone obstructions, but the flood rushed on, wild from all that brought about its delay. A headache and a dying voice—that’s what I was left with. I have class sizes from 11 to 32, and in each class, no matter the size, attempting to talk or yell over the students is as effective as loose stones damming a flood. Silence. It truly is golden. As it often goes in life, I had to learn from my mistake: my voice was all scratched before I realized the power of silence. After topping it off with an irritated scowl, the wild flood settled. “May I continue?”

The downside of the silent treatment is that it consumes, or can consume, too much time. On average, it has taken three minutes for the students to realize they are being too talkative and that they need to simmer down and listen. Consider a 50-minute class: if it has three occasions of excessive chattiness, by powers of quantum mathematics, that’s nearly 10 minutes of class time—or one-fifth of the 50-minute class wasted. Although silence is golden, it may be necessary to implement an alternative, prudent approach.

“Green card equals good. Red card equals bad. Understand? Green, good. Red, bad.” Other than recommending a card color change during the holiday season, I have no other recommendations; the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. This approach is simple. I explained to students that they can receive a maximum of four green cards for full participation points, which provided some students with that extra umph they needed to actively participate. Adversely, I told students if they receive three red cards in one class, consequences of the extra homework kind will follow.

Now, I am not a proponent of the reward-and-punishment system. I believe teachers should steer away from rewarding students. In our attempt to create independent learners, we must first reveal the true reward: education. Cards, candies, grades, and all other rewards are irrelevant. But, unfortunately, the best way to begin exposing students to this truth is by providing them with incentives to learn. Sometimes, rewards are simply practical. However, before I reverted, out of necessity, to the reward-and-punishment system, I gave students freedom, freedom wrapped in a pretty pink bow.

Initially, to each class of students, I expressed my aspiration of having a class founded on respect. “If we can respect each other,” I told them, “we will not have to implement rules and regulations.” Unfortunately, the gift of freedom didn’t make it out of its wrapping paper. I should have known better. That is, some teachers and parents have difficulty respecting each other, so why should I have expected respect among teenagers? Silly optimism, I know. Anyways, a list of rules and regulations, of CLASSROOM LAWS, became a necessity, so I did what the president of any democracy would have done: I gave the students a sheet of paper and said, “Here. Make some laws.”

Actually, I directed students into small groups. In their small groups, I asked them to brainstorm all of the classroom rules that they have. I ensured them that I do not care whether or not they agree with the rules. “Just write down as many rules as you can collectively conjure up.” After students shared and discussed their lists, I asked them to write down all of the rules that they want and think they should have. “Leaving the paper blank is not an option.” As the students shared their rules, I pitched in, adding snippets here and consequences there. Once we finished, “Okay,” I said, “we’re going to make this official. We’re going to write them down on a sheet of construction paper and tape it to the wall.” I dictated to students that I wanted two rules at the top of the list: number two, “We will try our best at ALL times.”; and number one, “We will respect our classmates and teachers at ALL times.” Here are some common rules that each class created:

  • “We are allowed to eat and drink in class if we clean up after ourselves.”
  • “We are allowed to listen to music if the teacher is not speaking and we are working independently.”
  • “We are allowed to chew gum in class if we throw it in the trash when we are done with it.”

And my favorite:

  • “If the teacher is late, we get free time, the amount of minutes the teacher is late, to do whatever we want.”

After we finished writing the rules on the sheet of construction paper, I explained to students, “Sign your name on this document. With your signature, you are giving your consent to abide by the laws you have established and, upon breaking these laws, to adhere to the penalties.”

Although I do not enjoy this type of classroom governance—a gavel-pendulum swinging between totalitarianism and democracy—it is essential to the learning process. However, for some classes, I have discovered that my initial “have respect” rule is sufficient. Classroom management changes from class to class. Consequently, it is the teacher, not the students, who must be flexible; the teacher must, as Whitman said, contain multitudes, and understand which class calls for which character.


  • Silence is golden but consumes time.
  • Green card/red card: reward/punishment
  • Freedom first, laws second
  • Teacher = Totalitarian & Democratic


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