The one approach that revolutionalized my classroom culture

My first few years of teaching,  I engaged in the popular tradition of revising the classroom rule list and proudly displaying what I hoped would prevent any and all classroom disruptions.  Yet, each year students somehow came up with situations that challenged my rules or tested my commitment to those rules.  Then, one year I came across a different approach:  it was just one particular guiding rule.  At first, it seemed too simple or too vague.  I tried it anyway.  It worked.  I’ve used it ever since.

The credit for the original idea goes to Jim Fay and David Funk, authors of the book Teaching with Love and Logic.  I’ve since given this book to another teacher, but I believe the original wording was something along the lines of:

You can do anything you’d like…

as long as it doesn’t cause a problem for anyone else.

Over time, my wording has become:

You can solve a problem any way you’d like…

as long as it does not create a problem for you… or anyone else.

That’s it.  It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

As problems increase, the need for classroom management increases.  So, I believe that classroom management and a classroom culture can really be positively affected if students can 1) identify problems as they arise, and 2) be empowered to solve those problems in appropriate ways.

Here are some examples of “problems” that can come up in a classroom

and my expectations for students:

  • a student needs a pencil
    • The student needs to quickly and quietly find a writing utensil to use without falling behind in the task and/or causing major distractions for other students
  • a student is bored
    • The student needs to be able to figure out strategies to re-engage to learn without taking other students off task and getting behind
  • a student is annoyed by another student
    • The student could move to another part of the room or find a way to respectfully ask the student to change behavior
  • a student’s feelings are hurt by something another student said
    • The student could calmy express this to the classmate or get an adult to help intervene at an appropriate time

I’ve really used this to guide the culture of my class and how I respond to students. My goal is to put students in the driver’s seat of their choice and to help students think about how their actions have repercussions for the moment and/or for the future.  I probably say “make good choices” to my students a few times a day in a somewhat joking but serious tone 😉

I also want students to realize that sometimes accidents or problems do come up and I expect them to start taking responsibility for thinking and following through on solutions. I stress that, in this classroom, we are all problem solvers.  If a problem comes up – it’s not the end of the world – we are going to work together to fix it.  I have said more than once “there are very few things in life this classroom that time, energy, or resources cannot fix”.


Here are other examples that work for my personality and teaching style:

A student asks, “Can I write in purple pen?”

My approach:  The problem is the student is trying to figure out what writing instrument to use for the task.   For me, as long as it doesn’t create a problem for me (it’s a color that makes it difficult to read) or it creates a problem for the student him/herself (it will make revisions more difficult), then I’m fine.  I assure students that I will let them know if I have preferences or requirements for an assignment or activity.  As the year progresses, students feel more comfortable evaluating choices and making judgments about materials to use, and they can just get right to work.

Another example.

A student asks, “Can I work with my friend?”

My approach:  As long as it doesn’t create a distraction for anyone else in the room (myself included) and it doesn’t create a problem for these students working together (they get behind in their work), then it’s okay with me.  Unless I specify in my directions to work “individually” or “with a partner” on a certain task, students can make that decision for themselves.  If the students do get too loud or off-task, I address the situation and ask them to identify the problem (which, 99% of the time, they can immediately do) and I encourage them to solve it.  The students identify their options: decide to either quiet down or change the situation (work individually or with someone else).  If after having time to resolve it on their own, they do not, then I intervene and make a choice for them (and consequences, as appropriate).


While these may seem like simple examples, this approach applies to more disruptive or more challenging situations as well. 

For example, if a student makes an inappropriate comment during class, that creates a problem for: the class (distraction), possibly another student (hurt feelings), and for the student him/herself (the student is probably getting behind on the content, some classmates are probably now annoyed and friendships could get affected over time and the student may have a consequence).  I talk with the student about ways to identify and solve these problems as well as how this student could try to avoid this again in the future.

I also use this rule proactively.

One of my favorite examples of this happened recently as students were picking groups for a project:

Teacher:  “I’d like to have a quick chat with the group members because I want to make sure you all reach your best potential in this project.  I have a few concerns about this group working together and I’d like to get your opinion.  First, why do you think I’m concerned?”

Students (with giggles):  “Because we get distracted easily and sometimes don’t do work when we are together”

Teacher:  “So, if that happens, what problems might you have as a group for this project?”

Students brainstorming (not so many giggles):  “We might have to do more work at home…  we might not get it done…  we might get a bad grade..  we might get in trouble… it might embarassing when we go to present in front of the class..”

Teacher:  “Yes, those are possibilities.  So I wanted to get your opinion on if you think this is the best situation for you – do you think you’ll be able to help each other prevent those problems?  or do you think it’s better to find different groups?  I am not necessarily asking you to separate, I’m genuinely asking if you think you’ll be able to keep each other focused?  I’m going to give you a couple minutes to talk together and think about it, and then I’ll come back.”

The students then approached me a couple minutes later to ask if they could each separate and go in different groups.  When I asked them about it, they said, “we thought about it, it would be really hard to not goof off because we all like to joke around.  So, we think it’d be better to work in different groups”.

I’d call that a success 🙂


In regularly using this language of this one rule with students, it has helped in diffusing potential for arguments or pushback.  I can talk with students to identify the problem and talk about possible solutions, then the students can try to make good decisions first and I reserve the right to intervene if that doesn’t seem to be working.  Once students see this pattern, it makes my actions and our conversations predicatable and calm.  Most of the time if the situation has not been diffused, the student is anticipating and expecting my intervention – and usually identifies the problem and offers a consequence before I even ask the question.

This also helps us all approach situations as problem solvers (not drama or problem creators).  It is my hope that students see that I am on their side (not against them imposing a list of prepared rules and consequences) and we are working together to come up with the best way to move forward in situations, whether they are simple or complex.  I can approach students in an honest and genuine way.  This has made for some incredibly rewarding conversations with my students.

I think, overall, the power comes from helping students think about their actions and consequences – and the students being in a position to make decisions.  I, personally, think if I try to tell my students every little thing they cannot do and focus on having prepared consequences if they do them anyway, my students would be missing out on dozens of mini learning experiences throughout the school year.  I try to keep the big picture in mind:  They need practice in assessing situations and thinking about how their choices impact themselves and others.  Will they always remember to do this ahead of time?  Probably not.  Will it always be pretty? Probably not.  But these students also need practice in making their own mistakes and trying to fix them – while knowing that we will be right there to help if they need it.











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