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NYC Helpline: How To: Develop as a Professional

Norms Make the Difference
Theresa London Cooper

Years ago, just before I began teaching, I received a great deal of valuable advice suggestions from friends and family members in the field of education on how to establish and maintain an effective learning environment. One of the best pieces of advice I received was the importance of creating class rules on the first day of school to set clear and high expectations.

Over the years, as I became more thoughtful and developed a deeper understanding of why rules were important (I chose to call them norms). I garnered the students’ input and we developed them together. I engaged my students in conversations and we discussed the rationale for each one. We discussed how the norms served to create and maintain a safe and healthy learning environment for all of us – including the teacher. As the facilitator, I was able to capture the thinking of the class and establish four agreed upon norms:

  • Be prompt.
  • Be polite.
  • Be prepared.
  • Be productive.

Today, if I were to add a fifth norm, it would be “Be proactive.” We’d discuss the importance of taking ownership of one’s learning and thinking ahead to promote successful learning experiences. We’d also talk about how being proactive can support conflict resolution, and give us think time to develop multiple strategies and solutions for challenges we encounter.

It’s important to remember that norms must be in place for the entire year. If and when a norm is disregarded, refer to the established list and the rationale you discussed with your students previously. In my experience, after modeling this behavior, the students will begin to hold each other accountable, which builds community and self governing.
Sometimes, a norm must be replaced as it no longer serves the classroom community. As a class, have a discussion and replace it with one that responds to the current need to maintain your learning environment.

Lastly, giving students time to express themselves as norms are being considered is critical to the process. The more input they have, the more invested they will be as they honor their norms. Take a few minutes to rethink the process you used to establish norms in your class. Will you refine your practice in the future? Are there any that could be replaced? If so, what will you modify?

See also:

Creating and Enforcing Classroom Rules by Kathy Granas

Setting Up Rules and Routines by Carolyn Hornik and Bonnie Glasgold

Do you have a question or comment about this article? E-mail Theresa.


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