Breaking Your Own Rules in the Classroom

Jul 15, 2022

One time I had this idea to have my students go outside and have a contest to see who could build a campfire using just 3 matches and a pile of sticks, and it would all be in the snow in the dead of winter. But first we would read the short story To Build a Fire to get some ideas and inspiration. I mean, talk about connecting literacy with something fun!
So we read the story and hiked out of my classroom into the woods by our school and we built a fire.

And it was epic.

But when we got back in the school, my students smelled like campfire, and my principal received a complaint. So he said to me, “Are you planning on doing this with the rest of your classes today?” I said, yes, I was. And he said, “Yeah, I don’t think you’re going to be able to. Building fires outside the school and the smoke smell might not be the best idea.”

And so I said, “Yeah, I understand.” But after he left, I was pretty bummed about this. I got really excited about connecting this piece of literature with a fun, hands-on learning experience, and I saw in that first hour class how much students loved it. So when my next class came in, I wasn’t excited about breaking the news to them that we couldn’t go outside.

But just as I was starting to make that announcement, my principal popped his head back into my classroom and said, “Never mind Mr Muir, go out and build the fire!” 

He changed his mind.

And so we spent the day reading and building campfires. And we roasted marshmallows too. After school I asked my principal why he changed his mind, and he said it was because he overheard students from my first hour talking about how much fun they had, and he figured it was worth getting a few complaints to see high school seniors that excited about English class. 

Breaking Our Own Rules

What I love about this, what I love about his leadership here, was that it was adaptable. His decisions weren’t fixed, but instead flexible to the situation. He allowed them to be informed by further information. This was such a valuable lesson for me as a teacher. So many times I’ve held rigid rules and felt conflicted when there seemed to be a good reason to push those boundaries, but I thought I couldn’t because they were already stated. 

Like when teaching writing and saying your poems have to rhyme, but then a student turns in something brilliant that doesn’t rhyme and marking them down for it. Or saying you need to solve this math problem this way, but they do it another way and still get to the right answer, but saying that’s wrong. Or saying that during reading time you need to be silent, but then two kids geek-out about a book they’re reading together, and telling them “no talking.” 

I totally get having firm boundaries, and I understand the need for rhyming in poetry, learning math in a certain way, or the benefits of a quiet room for reading. I really do. 

But sometimes it’s okay to change the rules.

I think it’s easy to get stuck in doing things a certain way because that’s always how it’s been done. And yet sometimes we learn that there are other paths to take. There’s good reasons to change our minds, be flexible, maybe even break our own rules. 

Within reason of course. If my principal assessed that building fires was dangerous or disruptive to other classes, of course he should stay firm on his decision and rule. But when he weighed the outcome and saw that a little flexibility was worth it, students got to experience a little extra joy in English class, I got to feel trusted and honored by my school leader, and I also got to eat a bunch of marshmallows at work that day. 

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