After 12 Years Of Teaching, I've Found That Norms Are Better Than Rules. This Is Why.

After 12 Years Of Teaching, I've Found That Norms Are Better Than Rules. This Is Why.

Guest Blog Post

By Sam Bradford

Let’s talk about “Classroom Rules.” Are they something you keep in your syllabus and mention the first day of class and never return to? 

Do you find that printing--and, if necessary, even laminating--a list of rules and tacking them on your wall safeguards you from problems with student conduct? 

We’ve all had the experience where a student comes to us and says “Gee, teacher, I sure was on a bad path, but when I saw that little sign that said ‘Respect Yourself and Others,’ it turned my life around. It was like, all of a sudden, I realized that I needed to respect myself. And others. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for that sign!” 

Oh, you haven’t had that experience?

You see where I’m going with this. I’ve been teaching for twelve years, with four of those years as a department chair, and two as Dean of Academic Affairs. I’ve had the opportunity to observe lots of classes across all disciplines in high school, and one of the most prominent trends I’ve noticed is that we could be a lot more intentional about building classroom culture. 

picture of blank sheets of paper with the banner across it that reads "After 12 years of teaching, why I've found that norms are better than rules," by Sam Bradford

One other connection I’ve noticed is that the teachers who say “Some years you get good kids. Some years you get bad kids. At the end of the day, there’s not really much you can do about it” are often the same teachers with that posted list of classroom rules--rules that are not even readable from the back of the class and go as unnoticed as whatever paintings are in the same room as the Mona Lisa.

pull out quote from article "I've had a chance to observe lots of different classes in lots of different disciplines, and what I've found is that we could be a lot more intentional in creating class culture."

I was one of those teachers until I learned about norms from the School Reform Initiative (SRI). I think that norms are one of the best tools for improving a healthy classroom culture. 

Norms are not rules. Rules can’t change. Norms change with the different chapters of the year. Rules are created by teachers. Norms are thoughtfully crafted by both teachers and students. Rules tell us what to do and what not to do. Norms remind us of what we need to be resilient and take risks.

Step Up. Make Room. We’re All Trying. Stay Open, Stay Cool. Adopt, Adapt, Adept. One Second At a Time. Shake and Bake.

What are norms? They are bumper-sticker-length phrases, usually in the imperative tense, crafted, agreed upon, and revised by the class. Norms can give us a boost when we’re feeling complacent. They can help us breathe when we feel paralyzed (especially for classes with overachieving students). They are things we tell ourselves and remind each other. 

Norms can mean slightly different things to different people. Step Up can translate to “I’m going to try to speak more often in discussion” or “I’m going to get ahead in the reading.”

They can also be really creative. One of my all-time favorites: VolSTAYved. Get it? Stay involved.

Rhetorically, they give you buy-in from your students and allow you to avoid the role of disciplinarian. Instead of “because it’s on my laminated page of Classroom Rules,” the stance is one of “I’m reminding us of our own language we agreed to. Is that language not helpful for us anymore? What would help?”

Table of a side-by-side comparison of norms verses rules

How To Create Norms With Your Students

At the start of the year, I use a discussion protocol to remember that learning comes when we take risks. SRI’s “Zones of Risk, Comfort, and Danger” is crucial for me. 

Then, we do a different protocol to establish norms, framing them with the idea that these are things that keep the maximum number of people in the risk zone for the maximum amount of time--either SRI’s “Attritubtes of a Learning Community” or “Norms Construction” works really well. I aim for no more than three norms per class so that it’s easy to remember.

Once norms are established and unanimously agreed upon, I do make a sign with our norms, which are separate for each class. Yes, I sometimes laminate them. 

At the start of each class, I remind the students of our norms. Some days, it takes ten seconds. Occasionally, I’ll turn it into a warm-up activity. For example, “journal on which norm you most need help with today and why” or “take a post-it note and write the norm you most need today on that note and stick it on your desk as a reminder” or “find a meme that best captures our norm.” 

Similarly, you can use them as a conclusion activity: “Who in here deserves the VolSTAYved award for today’s work?”

If I start to notice patterns in classroom conduct that impede learning, I’ll ask the class if any norms need to be revised or replaced. They can take ownership and build self-awareness. Things are very different when it’s the start of the year and no one knows anyone else as opposed to when it’s mid-semester and we’re comfortable. Or if it’s one week before a much-deserved Spring Break. Those chapters all feel different and require different reminders in order to do good work. 

By the end of the year, I’ve usually revised norms half a dozen times. 

The Result Of Using Norms

The result? Better class cohesion than I’ve ever had. Constant positive feedback on student surveys. The student who, a month ago, told me “I adopted ‘We’re All Trying’ as a norm for our Diversity Alliance.” More than once, I’ve heard some variant of “even outside of class, I tell this norm to myself--it helps me.” 

Can your list of Classroom Rules do that? 


Related Articles:

High School English Teachers: I Planned Your Frist Week Back To School (

Want An Outstanding First Day of School Activity for Your High School (

For more information on School Reform Initiative and how to bring this to your classroom or school, check out: 

School Reform Initiative – A Community of Learners

SRI Theory of Action – School Reform Initiative

Protocols – School Reform Initiative


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