You know in your mind that you want a balanced classroom environment. You want students to have a voice, but you don't want them to take advantage of your good will. The goal is for an atmosphere of mutual respect. But how can you make that happen?
Take a page from our forefathers who developed a unique government for the newly formed United States of America. Those great men had the foresight to empower the people with freedoms and temper those freedoms with responsibilities. That same solution will work for you in the classroom.
When people are oppressed, they tend to be sullen, until they finally rebel. Whether we are talking about a country or a classroom, that is a simple fact of human nature. If you choose to run your classroom like a dictatorship, ruling with fear and oppressing students, you will develop a classroom environment of resentment. Will students obey? Reluctantly, yes, but only out of fear of retribution. Eventually, students will begin to rebel in small ways. Those small rebellions will strengthen them, and soon you will find control slipping through your fingers.
When people are given a completely free reign, on the other hand, chaos tends to occur. With no accountability, any behavior becomes acceptable. The leader is treated no differently than anyone else in the group. In fact, any initial respect is soon lost as the people see that their leader is unable to maintain control. That happens all too frequently in the classroom, when students make all the rules or the teacher does not hold students accountable for their actions. No matter how fun and interesting your lessons are, without structure your class will be in constant chaos. You even might find yourself pleading with students to behave. Be aware; in that moment, they are the ones in charge of your classroom.
Your goal should be to empower students to take a part in their own learning while being held accountable for their behavior and work product. That can be developed through a system of Consistency and Flexibility within the classroom.
You might wonder: What should those freedoms be? What kind of responsibilities should I give my students? Both Consistency and Flexibility should naturally develop from your expectations (see Laying the Groundwork). Also, think about how you would expect to be treated -- in a staff development workshop, for example. Would you be offended if you had to ask another adult for permission to use the restroom? How irritated would you be if you forgot a pen and were forced to sit outside the room as penance for your forgetfulness? Take the golden rule to heart: Treat others as you want to be treated.
In my classroom, students have the freedom to use the restroom (with a pass), get materials, consult with other students, take a short break, and get a drink of water or a small snack as needed. Their responsibilities are to get their work completed on time and in a neat manner, be respectful of others, and keep their areas clean.
Now, you might wonder how you keep students in their seats for instruction if they have those kinds of freedoms. I use a concept I call My Time/Your Time that provides a structure for mutual respect.
First, I show students respect by empowering them to take care of their needs without feeling as though they are in prison. In return, I expect them to respect my time as the teacher. My Time is any time I am giving direct instruction, giving directions, or addressing the class as a whole. (That applies to any adult in the room.) During my time, I ask that students show respect by listening quietly, taking notes as needed, asking questions as needed, participating, and staying in their seats. I always teach mini-lessons, so my time generally lasts no longer than 15 or 20 minutes.
Your Time is any time students are working individually or together on an assignment or activity in the classroom. During that time, students may sign out to go to the restroom (one at a time), get a drink of water, get a small snack if needed, get materials, consult with other students (about class work), and so on.
In return, each student is responsible for getting the activity/assignment completed and turned in on time, respecting others, and keeping their areas clean so the classroom is left the way they found it.
In my classroom, we talk about the My Time/Your Time concept at length, and discuss what it means to me and to the students. I take some time to explain to students that just because a freedom exists, doesn't mean it can be taken advantage of. If a freedom is abused, then the consequence is that the freedom will be taken away for a day or two. After that time, we will try again.
We also talk about how each student is an individual and that sometimes what one student needs another doesn't. Fair isn't always the same is what I tell my students. If one student didn't get breakfast before coming to school, he or she probably will need a snack early on. That doesn't mean that everyone in the classroom needs to get a snack. I ask all my students to use their best judgment and to remember that when freedoms are abused, they will be removed.
With any freedom you offer students, make sure there is a corresponding responsibility. And make sure that you provide some structure to those freedoms. For example, you might have a sign-out procedure for bathroom breaks and allow only one student at a time to leave the classroom.
With structure comes accountability. What will happen if students abuse their freedoms? Be up front about the consequence so students know in advance what to expect. Once the consequence has been met, allow the freedoms again. That helps students learn from their mistakes and allows them to show growth in their maturity and responsibility.
With a balance of freedoms and responsibilities, you have the opportunity to develop respect between yourself and your students. You also are teaching them skills they will need in the working world as they interact with their colleagues, bosses, and community. I think you'll find that, as long as you provide the structure, students will respond positively to that type of balanced classroom environment. Empowering students opens the door to mutual respect, positive attitudes, and good behavior in the classroom.