309. Consistent or Flexible?

It’s common wisdom that you’ve got to be consistent with children about your rules and limits – that if you give children an inch, they’ll take a mile. And there’s plenty of anecdotal data to back up that wisdom. Like most adults I know, I’ve occasionally had to enforce rules I really didn’t want to enforce. The worst example I can think of happened when I was a beginning teacher. The whole class felt out of control, and I shouted, “The next person who talks will stay in from recess!”
The next person who talked was a child who had hardly ever said a word. There she was, finally saying something. It ought to have been a time for me to celebrate. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember that it was something worth saying. But all the other children were watching me to see
whether I was as good as my word, and I did what I felt I had to do – kept her in from recess.
That wouldn’t have happened later in my career. First of all, I wouldn’t have made such a dumb ultimatum (dumb, considering my personal style). And if I had made it, I would have explained to the whole class that I’d made a mistake because I really wanted the class to quiet down. Some children would have felt that I was being unfair – playing favorites. But sticking to my unwise ultimatum would have been unwise, and I’d undo any damage done to my image as a fair authority figure later.
I don’t think this is solely a function of experience; I know veteran teachers who stick to whatever rules and limits they set up, no matter who the transgressors are. They firmly believe that they need to be totally consistent, or they’ll open up a floodgate, and all Hell will break loose. That way of thinking works for them, and it doesn’t take long for children to learn the limits.
I never thought I’d say this, but I think it may be all right to be that strict. It’s harder sometimes, because not every child who steps outside the limits is doing so on purpose, and sometimes great things may happen outside the limits. A child may say something profound and important at a time when no one’s supposed to be talking. But when a teacher is consistent about rules, there’s an understandable context, and whatever consequences result from transgressions are more likely to be seen in perspective.
It’s not my way, though. I like to consider each case on its own merit, and each child as an individual. I’ve sometimes been accused of being soft – being a push-over. But I think my way works; I think children respect my flexibility, and still know about my limits. I think there’s room for both approaches, and all the approaches in between.

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