The gray area occurs when you witness behavior you don’t like.
—But are uncertain whether or not it breaks a class rule.
The problems associated with gray areas are legion and profound.
They . . .
- cause you to be inconsistent.
- compel you to question, remind, lecture, etc.
- increase your stress level.
- weaken your authority.
- lead to arguments, resentment, and hurt feelings.
- encourage more and more misbehavior.
Here at SCM, we receive a lot of questions about gray areas and what to do about them. (Last week’s article, in particular, triggered a new wave.)
The short answer is that you must eliminate them. Because if you don’t, the problems will expand and worsen as time goes on.
Once you eliminate gray areas, however, once you know precisely what behavior does and doesn’t break your class rules, the problems disappear.
Which begs the question:
How do you know? How do you know “precisely?” The wording of rules, no matter how specific, doesn’t always tell you.
When I speak to groups of teachers, or give advice while personal coaching, I’m often asked, “Does it break rule #1 (or #2 or #3, etc.) if a student does ________?”
My answer: “Do you want your students to be able to do that?”
Because—and this is key—it’s your classroom. It’s not how restrictive you are that determines how well behaved your class is. It’s setting your boundaries as you prefer, teaching them explicitly to your students, and then holding to them.
I can offer my opinion, but you have to decide where your line is.
I recommend taking time to visualize what you want from each of your rules. What exactly do they cover? What do they include? Are there any exceptions?
Are your students allowed to talk as they enter your classroom?
Can they whisper a question to each other during independent work?
Can they stand during group work?
If you’re working with a small group, must they raise their hand?
Can they laugh out loud if you say something funny?
I have my own preferences for these (yes, no, yes, no, of course!), but they may not be the same as yours. And that’s okay. Again, gray area choices have little to do with how well behaved your class is overall.
Not knowing is what causes the problems.
Furthermore, your gray areas may be unique to you depending on where you teach, your grade level, and your subject matter.
The good news is that they’re mere slivers of uncertainty, not giant swaths. The wording of your rules will cover the big, obvious transgressions. Thus, it isn’t difficult to choose what is best for you and your situation.
Once you decide each rule’s narrow definition, then you’re ready to teach them (or reteach them) to your students—who need to be as clear about what is and isn’t okay as you are.
They need to know where that razor-thin boundary line is and what, step by step, happens if they cross it.
The idea is to lay everything out on the table ahead of time so your students know what is expected during every minute of every day. Crossing the line, then, becomes a choice they know full well they’re making.
This is critical to making your classroom management plan work as it should.
Most questions about gray areas come from newer teachers, but not always. I’ve heard from teachers who have struggled for years because of this issue but could never put their finger on why.
For them, being aware of the existence of these cloudy bars of incertitude, and getting rid of them, has been a revelation.
If you have any trouble visualizing your gray areas, then simply begin jotting them down whenever you see them (i.e. whenever you’re unsure a particular behavior breaks a rule).
After a couple of weeks, you should have a solid understanding of what they are, where they are, and more important, whether you want to allow them or not.
Once this is determined, then eliminating them by teaching “this is okay and this is not okay” is easy.
PS – The release of The Classroom Management Way is now 10 days away. It represents 10 years of work and I’m incredibly excited it’s finally here.
I hope you’ll check it out.
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