(This article was written for the February 2017 issue of Teacher Plus. It had first appeared under the title ‘Going beyond the rule book’.)
The language that teachers use while communicating with students is often coded in the form of rules. Some of these are made by their superiors in the administrative hierarchy and handed down for implementation. Others are made as a response to the specific demands of classroom management, especially in settings where the teacher-student ratio makes personal connection a less frequent possibility. And then there are suggestions based on a personal sense of right and wrong, which take the shape of rules and get solidified over time.
Which of the following statements sound familiar to you? Perhaps not all of them can be called rules. However, they do carry the force of authority, and clearly spell out expected behaviour.
1. Don’t come to school when you are menstruating.
2. Walk in a single file.
3. Don’t colour outside the outline.
4. Trim your nails.
5. Don’t watch television before an exam.
6. Straighten your tie.
7. Don’t peep into your neighbour’s book.
8. Look to your left, and look to your right, before you cross the road.
9. Don’t look out of the window.
10. Maintain pin-drop silence.
11. Don’t doodle during class hours.
12. Finish your homework before you go out to play.
13. Don’t ask questions that are outside the syllabus.
14. Keep your hair short.
15. Don’t use swear words.
16. Mind your own business instead of helping others with their math problems.
17. Don’t drink water from that tap.
It is important to think about how students receive the rules, more so when they are not involved in the process of creating them. Are they eager to comply because they see merit in what they are being asked to? Do they seek to win the teacher’s approval by doing what is expected? Are they afraid to ask questions when a rule does not make sense to them? Would they like an explanation as to why certain things are the way they are? Learning about how rules are perceived can be a way to demonstrate actively what empathy looks like in the classroom. It can open up new avenues for conversation and mutual understanding.
I find Marshall Rosenberg’s language of non-violent communication particularly empowering while discussing rules at school. If we look at every rule from the lens of what need(s) it seeks to address for teachers, principals, parents, students, governments, non-teaching staff, we might develop a finer sense of why conflicts arise, and come up with creative ways to address needs that seem irreconcilable at first.
Here are some of the needs that human beings value: affection, love, dignity, confidence, appreciation, discipline, pleasure, trust, safety, encouragement, comfort, validation, control, beauty, curiosity, freedom, order, connection, support, empathy, stimulation, inspiration, harmony, justice, creativity, fairness, peace, acceptance, honesty, belonging, integrity, cleanliness.
Try out this exercise with your students. Ask them to list down all the rules at school that have been created in response to these needs. For example, the need for safety is met by laying down the rule that no visitors can enter school without a prior appointment, and the need for justice is met through the rule that any student who thinks that a punishment/consequence is unjustified will get a fair hearing before any action is taken by the school authorities.
Now ask your students to answer the following questions.
1. What is that one rule that you would like to challenge?
2. What is that one rule that you would like to alter slightly?
3. What is that one rule that you would like to break?
Encourage them to support their responses with reasons using vocabulary from the list of needs. For example, a student might want to challenge rules related to the kind of haircut they are allowed to have at school. While the school authorities might enforce this rule citing the need for discipline, the student might think that the rule interferes with their need for creativity or freedom. Another example could be that of a librarian who has made the rule that students should maintain silence in the library at all times. Here, the librarian’s need for order might clash with students’ need for connection if the latter want to use the space to socialize.
This is helpful because the discussion can now encompass a diversity of perspectives instead of being trapped in certainties about what is good and what is bad. There is a lot of room for learning from each other, and co-creating rules that seek to respect and incorporate all needs, or at least most of them. In the absence of such conversation, there can be deep distrust and discord. Students can end up thinking that the rules are arbitrary and oppressive, and that teachers do not care about their feelings. Teachers can end up thinking that students are not interested in learning, and all that they want to do is be disruptive. A lot of precious time and effort are lost as a result of such miscommunication.
Thinking about rules is also crucial from the standpoint of how the education system is used by nation states to produce a certain kind of citizen. While having law-abiding citizens is an essential requirement for the smooth functioning of society, it is also vital to have the freedom to speak up against rules that violate human dignity. If rules had not been challenged or broken, women today would not have the right to vote, Dalits would not have access to temples and sources of water, many countries would probably still be colonized, and slavery would not have been abolished. Our textbooks would not have had names like Rosa Parks, Savitribai Phule, Nangeli, Bhimrao Ambedkar, and Mohandas Gandhi in them.
The structures of violence that exist in society make their way into schools, and rules — written or unwritten — are created to systematically exclude sections of students based on their caste, religion, sex, mother tongue, class, ethnicity, ability, and sexual preference. The list of 17 statements can be used to discuss who is excluded and why.
As a teacher, you too are expected to follow rules at school that you might not agree with. If you have a sharply defined choice to make between standing up for your students and securing your job with the authorities at school, what will you pick?