473. Routine

Teachers have a lot of things to think about as they plan and carry out their plans. They think about the needs and preferences of the children, the curriculum, the issues that come up, the various senses of mission they feel, and their own needs and preferences. Some teachers
may approach teaching as just a job, with working hours and a salary, but for most teachers, it’s much more than a job.
One thing that makes teaching a little easier to manage is routine. Routine can become a tyrant, but it can also be a friend; when all those things teachers have to think about become overwhelming, it’s nice to know that certain things will happen the same way each day – that the children will enter the room whatever way theyre supposed to, sit where
they’re supposed to, and so on. Whenever I was successful at establishing routines, I imagined the voices of Kozol, Holt, Silberman, and myself criticizing me. I heard us accusing me of trying to impose conformity on people who would rather be free to be themselves. Some children – maybe many – liked being told what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and so on, but some clearly didnt.
What about the child who wants to transcend routine? In a rigid teacher’s class, transcending routine is considered misbehaving. Even little transgressions, like not tucking in your shirt or not taking off your hat, are liable to have unpleasant consequences. And bigger transgressions
are treated as sins. These vary from teacher to teacher, but I’ve seen teachers get very upset when they’ve seen children sitting on the radiator, using white lined paper for first drafts, or doing work they weren’t supposed to do yet. And I’ll bet I had my share of irrational taboos. I hope I didn’t crush anyone’s individuality, but I may have.
One of pupils’ first tasks of the school year is to figure out the teacher a little – to get to know which behaviors are likely to have which effects on the teacher. Part of that task is getting to know routines. As a pupil, I had some teachers I could manipulate pretty well, and as a teacher, I had some pupils who did the same to me. I think that’s fairly universal. Teachers try not to have favorites, and try not to have nemeses,
either, but most teachers do have to try; it doesn’t come naturally. And the ones who become favorites are sometimes the ones who quickly figure out which routines are sacred and which ones are just routine.
I know ritual can help preserve sanity. It doesn’t have to be a tyrant. It’s possible to maintain useful patterns without stifling individuality. I’ve seen it done, and I’ve sometimes done it myself. Thoughtful exceptions to not-so- thoughtful policies can really work; if you give ’em an inch, they wont necessarily take a mile. Maybe they’ll only take about an inch.

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