A Case for Creative Rule-breaking

Kids crave firm, consistent rules. A teacher's perspective on how we might creatively enforce them.

Kids crave firm, consistent rules. A teacher's perspective on how we might creatively enforce them.

“So, what terrible, horrible, no-good, mixed-up, very bad thing forced you to be late for art class?” I recently asked my student, Alfonso, as he ambled through the door with his friend, Kenzie, in tow. Alfonso is a tall, somewhat gangly athlete with an impish grin and a floppy mop of straight, light-brown hair.

“Well,” he began, pausing on the way to his seat. “What happened was this. Last night, I was sitting at my desk. I was bored, so I googled, 'What to do when you’re bored,’ and found a page that suggested I go find the Keebler Elves. It had a coded, secret map, so I followed it out to the Appalachian mountains and it led me right to their supposedly secret tree. I knocked on it and out popped the head Keebler elf from the cookie boxes—the white-haired one. Unfortunately, the elves turned out to be cannibalistic gnomes, and they took me hostage. They were going to sacrifice me and bake me up in some cookies, but because I was so lanky they thought I was a God and couldn’t bring themselves to kill me. They let me go, but as I was about to leave, I heard a muffled scream. I went back in and found Kenzie being held in a cookie jar, so I rescued her and we ran all the way back here to school—so I guess you can understand why we were a few minutes late.”

As he finished, I started to applaud. “Great story, Alfonso. One of your best. You’ve got serious conflict, quirky details, and a nice, tight story arc. C’mon, class, let’s give the man a hand.”

Alfonso took a bow and sat down. I did not mark him late.

Nine years ago, I dabbled in the world of educational discipline when I took a job mid-year as a roving third-grade teacher’s assistant at an at-risk school. At the time, I wasn't really considering a career in education—the job had just come up when I was unemployed and living with my parents in the haze of post-university confusion. It did, however, give me an excellent look at a variety of teachers’ educational and disciplinary approaches—from Katy the neurotic New Zealand exchange teacher who would let her kids get more and more riled up until finally yelling and cursing them out; to the firm, consistent hand of Mrs. Williams, the newly un-retired black lady who had replaced Katy after her erratic behavior crossed the line one too many times. In two weeks, Mrs. Williams turned the loudest, most un-disciplined class in the entire school into the most focused, highest-performing one.

It's safe to say that her approach intrigued me. I had been growing more and more frustrated by the seemingly pointless directives issued at students: “Single file! Hands at your sides! Eyes on the person in front of you! No talking!” It was enough to make any good Pink Floyd devotee go crazy—did they really need all of this thought control?

Still, here was a woman, who, without screaming or swearing, managed to keep a room full of at-risk kids on task and much, much happier than they’d been with her more lenient predecessor. Whenever I got slotted in as a substitute for a class, my laissez-faire attitude turned rooms of eight-year-olds into troops of berserking baboons. But with unflinching resolve, Mrs. Williams made clear her expectations and the consequences for failing to achieve them. And the kids, who had seemingly been waiting for discipline and routine, began to thrive. Could it be that in an era in which we work so hard to pander to the whims of our kids, our grandparents could be right? Could it be that what kids really need (and want) is a good, firm hand to the metaphorical backside?

I don’t know. I do know that I am still highly suspicious of a one-size-fits-all approach to classroom management—which is why I let students like Alfonso avoid the consequences of his irresponsible lateness by inventing creative and magical lies. Granted, this is an actual policy of mine, so the principle of consistently enforced standards is still being applied in my classroom. I am fortunate enough to work in a school that allows its teachers a bit of flexibility when it comes to discipline, and since my classes are all about creativity, it doesn’t really bother me that Alfonso and Kenzie probably sat outside my door for a few minutes, waiting to be late so they could come in and tell the story they had probably spent half their study hall cooking up.

Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.

Illustration by Junyi Wu

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