Defending the Non-Negotiable in the Classroom

I promise, I was out of my desk to pick up someone’s pencil that fell off their desk.  There I was, walking the fine line of detention in Mrs. Andrews’ 12th grade Government/Economics class.  You see, Mrs. Andrews was very strict, but very fair.  She had one rule everyone had to follow or suffer the consequences: When the tardy bell rang, you must be in your seat.  No excuse or reason was ever good enough to avoid the detention that followed.  Good deed or not, when the tardy bell rang that day and I was out of my seat…I knew…I was about to receive my first (and only) detention in my high school career.  I don’t remember exactly, but I’d like to think I took the punishment with head held high.  After all, I was out of my seat to help another; paying it forward with an act of good will to create a more compassionate world.  More honestly, though, I probably crafted some feeble-minded argument that most definitely fell on deaf ears.  

At the time, as an adolescent months away from graduation, I surely didn’t understand this non-negotiable.  There’s absolutely no reason good enough to be out of my desk when tardy bell rings?  What was Mrs. Andrews thinking?  Why did she not like us?  Teachers are always making up rules just to make up rules.  What’s the deal with that?  I guess they have nothing better to do.  

Boy, did those statements come back to bite me.  Karma.  

Now, I’ve never actually spoken to Mrs. Andrews to confirm her reasoning behind the rule.  I assume it’s because she wanted to maximize time in the class…bell to bell is the teacher jargon, I believe.  Also, I presume there’s a bit of a life lesson hidden in this non-negotiable.  There are non-negotiables in life, and while I believe the classroom shouldn’t exactly mimic real life, it should foster the creation of healthy habits.  A majority of the time the habits I’m hoping to cultivate are study/practice habits, through the use of learning strategies.  I do also see it as part of the unwritten curriculum to assist in preparing my students with other habits (usually referenced as soft-skills) that help them succeed in either the university or career setting.  For myself, Mrs. Andrews’ tardy bell rule helped me to create priorities in the classroom and understand, to a certain extent, that rules are rules.  There are limits; limits that have to be accounted for or there is a consequence.  I believe that is quite healthy for anyone to understand.  

How should the non-negotiable be administered in the classroom?

  1. I believe the rule to be followed should teach a skill/habit that is applicable in real life.  Again, Mrs. Andrews’ rule enforced promptness to class and the creation of priorities once in the class.
  2. Both the rule and its consequence should be easily decipherable.  By that, I mean, that its application and consequence should be black and white…no gray area.  
  3. Neither the rule nor the consequence be extreme.  I’m not saying we create a situation where the student’s academic future is in jeopardy or suspension is dispensed.  I know with my students, if you attempt to take away some of their free time, that is punishment enough.  
  4. Lastly, and most obviously, the rule must always be followed.  No excuse and no reason can be good enough to violate the rule.  

Now, I know there are those who disagree with this idea…and that’s ok.  To each his/her own.  I think it’s equally important students experience teachers with differing levels of rules/expectations and differing personalities…you know, like when we are in the real world.  

3 Thoughts

  1. I like this. The term ‘non-negotiable’ has started to become jargon and lose its meaning, so it’s important to define what it really means and what it’s for, thanks.
    How did Mrs Andrews communicate these to you and how do you communicate non-negotiables to your students?

  2. Thank you for the comment. Glad you like the post. Mrs. Andrews’ non-negotiable proceeded her class…everyone knew before taking the class. Obviously, it’s also something she spoke about during the first few days of the class and periodically throughout the semester.

    I communicate all of my expectations clearly, concisely, and at intermittent times throughout the semester. I find that the more complex the rule, the more likely it will be misunderstood or broken.

  3. I like this, which I guess really means, I agree.

    Which leads me to a random musing. I hope it’s relevant.

    One day in my 8th grade classroom, just moments before I signaled that class was to start (I had been standing in the doorway, greeting students as they entered, as was my standard practice), one young man had asked another young man if he could borrow a pencil, and the lender threw a pencil toward the intended borrower. But the pencil never reached its target, because a young woman intercepted its path. The point of the pencil missed the young woman’s eyeball by millimeters. I could see the mark the graphite left on her eyelid.

    From that day forward, my rule, stated on the first day of class, was, No Throwing Anything. I would recount that story as part of my explanation for the rule. And would even, on that very first day of class, extend blanket permission everyone to leave their seats IF they were doing so to give to a classmate something essential to completing classwork.

    Middle schoolers being middle schoolers, though, eventually someone would ask to borrow an eraser or a piece of paper or some other seemingly harmless object, and the lender would throw said object toward the borrower, and I would feel compelled to bark, “Hey! Do Not Throw Anything in This Classroom!” The guilty party would frequently protest with a statement that started, “But it was just a . . . . ”

    My response was always the same: For a rule to work, it must be clear and it must be enforceable. So, if were to allow throwing some object but not others, where would I draw the line? Almost any object, I would point out, can cause serious damage if it hits a vulnerable part of a person’s anatomy with enough force. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, I have chosen to ban the throwing of all objects. In this way, I pointed out, I have avoided ambiguity, and when it comes to any society, the road to anarchy is paved with ambiguous rules.

    So I completely understand Mrs. Andrew’s rule on students being in their seats.

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