File Under: The Path Not Taken | Compliance

Power is great. Not just in teaching. Any form of power feels awesome. You can have power over situations. You can feel powerful physically. You can have power over people and even determine the outcome of their lives. Your boss can fire you, having a devastating effect on your future. You can get promoted, which sets a course for future success. With that being said, I completely understand why teachers would feel powerful in their classroom.

I’ve recently left the classroom after about 6 years of teaching Computer Science. I have been thinking a lot about my tenure. Most of my reflections are positive. I certainly learned a lot about myself, and grew as an educator. Despite all that growth, I’ve been preoccupied lately with the things I either didn’t do, or the things I did that I shouldn’t have done. Welcome to a series of posts I’m calling “File Under: The Path Not Taken”

Today I’d like to talk about compliance.

Hands on Top


Let’s talk about all the ways we ask our students comply with our demands in a day:

  • Quiet while I am talking

  • No running in the hallway

  • No talking in the hallway

  • Stand in a straight line

  • No talking during class

  • Stay in your seat

I could honestly keep going - feel free to add more in comments, but I think you get my point. Generally speaking, at school, we demand our students to be constantly sitting, and constantly quiet. I’ve seen hundreds of ways we ask for this, if you’re an elementary teacher “Hands on top, that means stop..” is a mantra you may say 15-20 times a day! Honestly, I don’t mind these strategies we use in the sense that it is important to get your kids attention sometimes; though I always felt goofy doing it. What I mind, is a constant, unrelenting demand we have for students to be silent and still.

Generally speaking, at school, we demand our students to be constantly sitting, and constantly quiet.

I was as guilty of this as much as anyone. Full transparency - here are some things I totally did, all the time. I kept my hands on my head until the whole room was completely silent after doing “hands on top.” I made my students stand in a line outside quietly before they were allowed to come in. I’ve stopped my class in the middle of the hallway walking somewhere, of course - in a line, in order to give them a lecture on talking loudly in the hallway and not being in a straight line. I did those things. I did other similar things. I regret doing them. I think I would have had more meaningful relationships with my students if I had not done those things.

In my defense, I loved when my students talked in class. I let them work together and talk together virtually all the time. But more often then not, I was still constantly demanding compliance in my class. It may not have been talking, but it would have been something else. I was always exerting my power over my students in, what I believe now to be, completely unnecessary ways. Sit down, don’t do that, give that back, where are you going? Sound familiar? I hope not, but I bet we do this all the time without realizing it. The combination of the fact that this is the way school has always been done, and the intoxication of power, have conditioned us into this mode. We’re so caught up in the fact that we can, we don’t stop to think about whether we should.


Obviously you can make a case that talking in the hallways while other students are working is bad. I’m cool with that, I agree. But these demands for compliance, these specific ones and others are, in most cases, pointless otherwise. They also have a very low return on energy and time invested and, in my opinion, probably do more harm than good. To make my point, ask yourself this. If you had:

  • An amazing class culture, full of fun and excitement.

  • Kids who loved you, adored you even.

  • Students who worked hard for you and never wanted to disappoint you.

  • A class of mutual trust and respect

Don’t you think they would comply with some of the more common school norms without the demands for compliance or lectures when not complying? I do.

So how do you do this? I’ve been thinking about that too. I think instead of noticing a student is talking about “non-school” stuff in class and correcting that behavior from across the room, go over to that student and talk to them about what they are working on, give them some positive encouragement, maybe some advice and a pat on the back. How about instead of waiting for my kids to line up outside the room quietly, I invite them in enthusiastically and get them pumped for another class. I could have easily done these things, you can do stuff like this too.

we’re so caught up in the fact that we can, we don’t stop to think about whether we should.

My point is, I challenge you to think about the ways you are asking your kids to do exactly what you are asking them all the time, or the ways you are trying to express your power over them in the class. It is time teachers ceded some of the control of the classroom to our students. I think this is the best way for them to learn. By relinquishing control of the classroom just a little bit more, I bet you have students who smile more, who laugh more, who enjoy your company more, and who learn more effectively. By giving up just a little of your power, I bet your classroom becomes incredibly powerful. Give it a try, I wish I had.