It’s common to hear teachers advised to “create rules with students on the first day of school.” The justification given for this is that it shows students that you are willing to accept their input and that they have agency over how the classroom environment is structured and run.

But “collaborating” with students to make rules is a manipulative and ultimately self-defeating practice.

It’s a trick, and one that can easily backfire.

For one, most schools already have a schoolwide discipline code that lays out clear rules and guidelines and codifies different levels of infraction for different offenses. And teachers already know what they want the rules of their classroom to be.

Asking students to create the rules is phony because teachers know they will be subtly guiding students toward creating the rules they already had in mind. And there are some proposed rules that simply can’t or won’t be codified into the class rules, even if students all agree and can eloquently articulate the logic behind the rule, either because this is not a preferred rule of the teacher or the proposed rule contravenes an already established school rule.

What if, for example, your students all decide that gum chewing should be allowed? They point to the research that gum chewing helps concentration, and propose a one-strike rule in which gum chewers who do not properly dispose of gum lose gum chewing privileges. You’d admire their ingenuity, but if you are a school in which gum-chewing is banned building-wide, you’re not accepting that rule.

That may seem harmless, but the message you send is destructive to the nascent teacher-class relationship. You are in effect showing students that their input is valued only when it matches your own beliefs, opinions, and value system. You’ve also shown them that you’re willing to make them do purposeless work; this won’t kill their trust in you altogether, but it’s the “first straw,” if you will.

Frankly, this is just an annoying process for the kids to go through.

But there are ways to do this right that not only introduce kids to the rules but also teach them a lesson in understanding power structures.

You might, for example, explain that in your class you will be creating the rules. Explain why–because you are an agent of the state government, selected by government officials who work for representatives who were elected by and whose salaries are paid by their parents. As such, you are responsible and accountable for the well-being of all 30-something kids in the class in a way they most certainly are not. It’s your job to create good rules because if something goes wrong, you’re responsible.

Explain that your positional authority grants you that ability, but that your interest in also creating and maintaining relational authority–trust, rapportetc.–impels you to seek their input on the rules. Tell them that you are far from perfect and would like their feedback, but be sure to explain up front that just because they give feedback or suggestions does not mean you will accept it. Then give them a copy of your proposed rules and provide them with structures for evaluating the fairness and appropriateness of each rule. Review their feedback and decide whether or not you will make any changes to the rules.

You don’t have to do it exactly like that, of course. But being up front and honest with kids about the power structures underlying the classroom will go much farther in building trust and rapport than a phony exercise in which they try to guess what’s in your head.

(Michael Linsin also has a great article on why this is a bad practice; we agree that it’s bad but we don’t quite agree on why.)


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