Follow the Rules

Without much ado lets plunge into the whole ‘school rules’ concept. A concept I’m going to discuss based on two assumptions. First is that my experience of school regulations is common to the majority of OECD education systems (I’m going to look pretty silly if it isn’t but I’m sure you’ll all set me straight should that be the case). Second is that the outsider’s perception of school rules is that they are often old fashioned, bordering on archaic, and the active enforcing of them shows a general disconnection to the real world. Here’s my take.

Rules Evolve

It would probably surprise many people to know that the internal rules and regulations that form the running of a school are under constant scrutiny. They may appear not to change much from year to year, but I assure you that the leadership group in most schools look at, and re-evaluate, their regulations yearly. Even if it’s simply by chatting with leadership in other schools and asking how they are doing things. These conversations accrue and little amendments or edits are applied to the front of the school diary where many schools publish their rules.

It’s a method that can handle rapid and dramatic change too. If you don’t believe me then think about the sudden ubiquity of mobile phone usage and the ridiculously quick way social networking has come to dominate the youth culture. Now think about the need for an educational institution to reasonably protect people’s privacy. And now, think about the complete absence of community discourse on how to handle it. Over the last ten years, I would argue, a great many Principals and school board members have been conversing with their peers along the lines of “Here’s what we’re doing, what’s working for you?”

More ‘Order’ than ‘Law’

Interestingly the challenges schools face are multifarious but the goals remain constant. Schools are places where great numbers of young people gather to learn. Therefore, the foundation of all rules and regulations in any school are, at their core, designed with the intention of providing an environment where all students can learn, grow, and develop in safety…and, with any luck, to the best of their ability. As warm and fuzzy as that sounds, it always involves the school explicitly setting out a series of expectations for the student body as a group. For the student this will mean sacrificing some of their individuality in order for the group to operate cohesively.

It also means consequences must be established for those situations where students are not following the expectations the school has for the group. The rules are not about imposing the will of an aging, crusty, old and faceless school leadership on hapless innocents. Instead, they’re about maintaining order and cohesion so hundreds of kids can come to the same place five or so days a week and receive an education in safety.

Punctual, presentable, nice

In the early days before Google became the giant it is today, someone anonymously wrote “don’t be evil” down on a management meeting agenda. It’s a good example of how a stakeholder in the institution didn’t want to interfere with the details of running the show but had a clear expectation of how people should behave when running it. The same applies to schools, although the message is coming from the other direction. School rules and regulations are very much like the institution expressing expectations it has for students. The expectations aren’t written like this but they essentially say, “Go about your business and remember to be punctual, be presentable, and be nice”.

Inevitably, someone can’t do this and then staff like me become involved. My role within my workplace is twofold. As well as being a teacher I am a Year Level Coordinator. This means I have more responsibility than a Homeroom Teacher, and less than a Deputy Principal. Being a YLC is far from a thankless task. I have opportunities to get to know and be involved quite significantly in the education of a great many more students than would be the case were I a subject teacher only. It is undeniable though, that I don’t often have students popping into my office to regale me with their latest educational highlight, or enquire casually about my health. No, the majority of traffic passing through my office is for disciplinary matters of one form or another. Basically, they regularly fail to either be punctual, presentable or nice. It’s then my job to persuade or compel the student to make amends so we can all get on with the main (and shared) objective of learning.

Applying the rules

It is often helpful to remember that the student in question is basically a good kid. More importantly, in fact, they consider themselves to be basically a good kid, which is usually why they continue to disregard the rules of the school. They personally consider the misdemeanor to be nothing special. This is the complacency thing I referred to a few weeks back, just in another form. The rationale that I’m sure goes through their mind is “Where’s the fire? I haven’t hurt anyone?”  

As for situations where someone was hurt the thinking is…well it’s a little more complex than I can get into here but suffice it to say I never came across a fight where the aggressor(s) didn’t feel justified. That’s why last week I wrote schools need to consistently issue ‘consequences’ that are the result of students inappropriate actions and not ‘punishments’ for being ‘naughty.’ For a student who feels they can justify their behavior, a ‘punishment’ is merely another reason to feel they have suffered another personal injustice.   It’s hard to work cooperatively with a student with that kind of a grudge festering in the back of their head.


This is not a perfect world in which we live, and schools are no different. There are some that are down right scary but, for the most part, they are places where the codes of conduct or the rules, and regulations or whatever you want to call them, are followed and the pursuit of learning is achievable. I don’t care what school you point to, if the institution is going to get the job done, they must have clearly set out their expectations and value them enough to respond with consequences when they’re not followed. This doesn’t need to be an exercise in pedantry but it does need to be one with integrity. Even ‘good kids’ need to learn to follow all the school rules, not just the ones they like.