Let's assume—just for fun—that you are reading this before you have got a problem with class management!
- If that is the case, then the message is clear (for once, for all classes I have ever encountered): get the ground rules clear as soon as physically possible.
If it isn't the case, then one of the reasons you looked this page up is probably that you did not do it, or that you tried to impose your own rules rather than sign the students up to generally-accepted rules.
What are ground rules?
They are the minimum necessary conditions for getting learning work done in the class.
They may include:
- Arriving on time
- Respecting health and safety regulations (You may well be in breach of your contract and legally liable for accidents if you do not cover these, including explaining the detail.)
- Switching off mobile 'phones
- Not interrupting fellow-students
- Not moving to do something requested until given an explicit cue (rather than "order"), such as "Go!"
- Respecting other people's contributions
- Only having one conversation at a time in the class.
There is no definitive list for all classes, but it is a useful exercise to think through what you want on the list before you start the class: if you don't know what you want, how will the students know?
Do Ground Rules work?
No. They are necessary but not sufficient.
You can use a spirit of honest enquiry to clarify them through questions: "Is there anyone who expects that they may have difficulty getting here for the official start-time?" "Do any of you need to keep your mobiles on, for family or 'on-call' reasons? OK, could you set them up for 'silent ring', please?"
- Ethically, it is not fair to castigate people for violating rules unless they know and understand them. Currently, the buzz-word is "transparency".
- Pragmatically, they are hostages to fortune. They state what students have to do to incur your wrath: if someone is determined to be disruptive and to get attention in that way, it is better if they know what to do (which may be very minor if you are very "strict"), rather than have to experiment to find out what will rattle your cage.
- On the other hand, they can be experienced as patronising: "Who is this guy who thinks we have to be told how to behave in a class?" See the point about "sharing" below. So don't just lay down the law.
What are the Ground Rules about Ground Rules?
These are the "meta-ground rules"!
- Never neglect them. You may have a class of stroppy and unmotivated adolescents, or a small group of keen senior citizens: they can all waste a lot of time trying to find out what these rules are if you don't help to clarify them.
- I said, "help to clarify them", not "impose" them. They only really work if they are shared.
- But chance would be a fine thing, in some cases. This bit is not easy, but you need to get the class with you, agreeing their responsibilities, rather than demanding compliance with your requirements.
- One way is to specify what you expect of them and then to invite them to set out what they expect of you, and discuss rationally whether you can meet those expectations.
- You need to work on the basis of "rational" rather than "positional" authority. Appeal to the principle of efficiency in learning: "My experience is that if we do so-and-so, you are likely to learn more."
- Show how they will help the students. If they think the rules exist simply to make your life easier, students are not likely to support them. But if they will make their lives easier, they'll sign up.
- But don't make a big deal out of them. To do so sends a message that you are anxious about the issue, and that implies that you cannot manage the class.
- Set them out clearly but routinely and check for agreement at the very start of your contact with the class.
- But clearly refer back to them when you have to intervene to manage the class.