Two and a half years ago, while reading Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess, I made his one class rule: Don’t Be Mean, my one class rule. In the more than 2000 class periods since then, I’ve had to call for administrative help with an unruly student exactly one time. As this year wound down, I asked students to name the best and worst things about the rule. Below are the most representative of their replies.

But first a little background. I introduce the rule on the first day of class and make it unconditional. Even when it’s not easy, even when someone else is mean first, even when it’s not intended: Don’t Be Mean. Then I say we’ll take up everything else as it comes on along. We spend the rest of the first period with Burgess’s Introduce Yourself in Clay activity. The second day, we repeat the rule and I show the well-known video about How To Start a Movement in Three Minutes, the point being that the real leaders are the first and second followers who legitimize a behavior. Sometime later I make a Don’t Be Mean poster that everyone who’s willing to try not to be mean can sign. And although we go over the rule and who the true leaders are a lot in the first couple of weeks, that is pretty much that.

I can’t say I’m a great classroom manager, but I’m rarely at war with students, collectively or individually. And whereas, I almost never need administrative intervention, I do let my principal and assistant principal known if I’m having trouble with a student, and they tell me to let them know if I want them to get involved. I also put disruptive students with buddy-teachers and call home a lot – for both positive and negative behavior. Finally, I work to create a classroom where we all share responsibility for creating a high-functioning class.

Nonetheless, Don’t Be Mean anchors our class, and here is what students find best about the rule:

  • Students actually use it
  • It’s not hurtful
  • No one “offs” (puts down) themselves
  • You get treated with respect
  • People try to follow it
  • No one makes fun of you
  • People aren’t mean like in other classes
  • Goes for everyone
  • It’s straightforward and promotes friendliness

And here is what they find worst about the rule:

  • It’s kind of childish
  • You can’t defend yourself
  • People are still kind of mean
  • You can’t have fun or make jokes
  • Trying to handle your thoughts
  • Makes people want to break the rule
  • It’s broken more than the Warrior Code
  • The teacher breaks the rule and is hypocritical

I’m not sure if the last negative comment was serious. If I make a teasing remark to a student, I’ll often say, “Wait, did I just break my own rule? What a hypocrite!” But I’ll take the comment to heart and pay closer attention to my own words and behavior.

The feature I like best is that the rule allows me to differentiate my interventions to disruptions. And that leads to an irony. Although I respond differently to situations depending on who’s involved, in the same exit survey, over 90% of my students said I’m as fair or fairer than other teachers and that I show students the same or more respect. The reasons most often cited were that I treat everyone the same and I treat students how I want to be treated.

It’s really hard for me to come up with anything negative about the rule, but since I hate it when students answer “IDK,” I better. So how’s this? The rule is usually interpreted as a command to not be hurtful. But there’s meanness, too, in things like not attending to personal management responsibilities that end up making more work for someone else.

Nonetheless, the pros outnumber and outweigh the cons by a large margin, and I still consider Don’t Be Mean as the only class rule I’ll ever need.


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