Rules and Humility
Your post brought back a memory from almost twenty years ago, of setting the classroom rules for the year ahead when I was 10 or 11 years old. Our teacher gave us a few minutes to consider what rules we thought we should follow to maintain a positive learning environment for ourselves and each other. In my work today around dialogue facilitation, I might be more likely to use the language and framing of ‘agreeing a class contract’ or ‘collaboratively setting a learning agreement’, but the language of rules can also be a helpful one.
I have a distinct memory of our teacher insisting that we frame each rule in the positive. This was a new idea to me. When a friend raised her hand to suggest that “no talking over someone else” was important, our teacher encouraged us to think about how we could frame that same idea more constructively. “We should respect each other!” another friend offered. “Good, so what do you think it looks like to respect each other? How do we demonstrate our respect? How does it relate to what Sarah said about ‘no talking over someone else’?”
Looking back, I recognize that she was demonstrating for us the importance of both the process of collaboratively determining and understanding the rules and agreements for our class, as well as the outcome, the rules themselves. In turn, both the process and the outcome shaped and guided the culture and climate of all our interactions in that classroom for the year, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
I want for a moment to consider humility, because I think that it is key here, both for students and staff. I’ve previously reflected on aspects of my work helping to build a positive, affirming, and inclusive school culture for the Nishkam School Trust in the U.K. and I’m reminded of a number of conversations with staff about what it means to embody humility as educators.
We always sought to engage with staff as partners and tried to avoid being overly prescriptive about how to integrate values-based framing into all aspects of the daily life of the school. We wanted staff to be able to act with sincerity and integrity to their own particular personality and style, rather than trying to impose specific requirements for how to demonstrate each of the dispositions and values around which the school is built. One teacher decided that she wanted to begin each class by bowing to her students. It was a simple and heartfelt action which she believed demonstrated and modelled humility to the young people she was working with, and was a physical, embodied reminder that each of us has something to teach and something to learn. Her action also evoked familiar teachings of ethical and religious figures around the importance of leading with humility, sometimes called ‘servant leadership’.
I think that is also an example of trying to be, as you put it, more personal and more courageous in how we as educators engage with our students. It is a reminder, too, that we are a community of learners, that we are connected to each other, and that maintaining a healthy and productive learning environment requires active participation from everyone in that classroom.