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If Teachers Are Natural Rule-Followers, That’s a Problem

As a teacher educator–that is, someone who teaches would-be teachers at the college level and leads teacher certification programs–I have always been leery of students who become teachers because they like imposing rules.

I’ve had would-be teachers say, in front of an entire class, that they enjoy correcting people’s grammar and pointing out errors on their friends’ papers.

When I hear comments like this, a red flag flies in my head and sirens and warning bells go off. These comments don’t reflect a teacherly attitude. They reflect a law enforcement attitude. And such a preference for and enjoyment of rules can conflict significantly with the role of a teacher.

Teaching as Law Enforcement, Instead of Learning Encouragement

A law-enforcement attitude, at least at the college level, has gotten worse as a result of the pandemic and the sudden shift to online learning. What makes me think this? One reason is a recent conversation with a large group of colleagues.

Many college teachers have become obsessed with test security. New online tools are being purchased, including one called “Honorlock,” the name of which even George Orwell would find admirably, well . . . Orwellian. On my campus, faculty recently gathered to complain about what they see as rampant cheating on the tests in their large classes. Students are sharing answers in real-time via texts, shared Google Docs, and conference calls–all while enjoying the privacy of wherever they are sitting while taking the test.

Yes, this kind of cheating is a problem. Not because the students are “getting away with it,” but because students are earning passing grades in courses without learning the necessary skills and knowledge, effectively eliminating the value of a college degree. Student Learning is the ONLY thing that matters in any classroom. Anything that interferes with student learning is a very serious issue.

Creative educators might think, well, the tests aren’t working as appropriate assessments anymore, so let’s design new assessments that don’t allow cheating. Or, at least don’t encourage it. Or–to be outrageously wild–design assessments that actually encourage genuine learning of the content.

“No,” law-enforcement teachers say from the tiny boxes in which they have stuffed their poor attitudes about students. “Nothing but traditional exams can appropriately assess students in large classes.” Any really good teacher will tell you this is completely false. But those teachers are unfortunately rare, particularly at the college level, particularly at large, research universities.

So instead of researching and designing new kinds of assessments, these teachers prefer to employ outrageously invasive software that uses Artificial Intelligence against their students while they are taking their tests.

Why would these college teachers insist that they MUST work via tests even when those tests don’t work? Why would they prefer to create invasive surveillance right in their students’ private spaces instead of exploring new forms of assessment? Aren’t college teachers, especially at research institutions, supposed to ask hard, critical questions and then research solutions to them?

One answer could be laziness, and in some cases this may be true. But most college teachers are extremely hard-working people. So I don’t think laziness is the likely culprit.

A more likely explanation, I submit, is that these teachers are natural rule followers. They respect and enjoy rules and the structure they create. They also tend to think hard rules are necessary because they believe students–in fact, most people–are basically bad.

If you think of students as basically bad, you are much less likely to think about how to help them learn than you are to ensure they can’t cheat. Such a law enforcement attitude as this discourages creative ways to increase student learning, and instead encourages punishments for those who try to “get away with” not learning.

“You’d better learn this knowledge or I will find a way to expose you and to punish you,” is the implicit message in such a philosophy. It is certainly not welcoming to learners.

Are You a Law Enforcement Teacher or a Teacher More Focused on Student Learning?

So. If you are a natural rule follower, are you less likely to be focused on your students’ learning than on their adherence to rules? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you enjoy marking errors on students’ papers? Does doing so make you feel smart? Do you think you are helping students learn better by pointing out all their errors?
  • Are you absolutely sure you know what you’re talking about regarding students’ errors? Do you really know the expectations of Standardized English or Standard Written English? What sources do you use to confirm your knowledge about Language?
  • Do you teach what Academic Honesty is and why it matters, or do you focus on teaching students that Plagiarism is a crime and that they should avoid it at all costs?
  • Do you work harder to catch students cheating than you do figuring out why they resorted to cheating? Do you take cheating personally?
  • Do you lay out rules to your students as one of your first activities, even before you talk about learning?
  • Are you frequently disappointed in your students or angered by their behavior? Can you recall students from your past who caused these feelings in you?
  • If a student misbehaves or does poorly or even misses an assignment, is your first thought to blame the student, rather than ask if the student is OK?
  • Do you tend to dislike and/or mistrust most students? Do you like only a few students?

An answer of yes to just about any of the questions above could be cause for concern. 

If you have answered yes, you might want to think more deeply about why you’ve become a teacher and if your real mission is to increase student learning. That might not be your real motivation. Your real mission might be fidelity to rules. You might even find that you have a preference for authoritarianism. If that’s your mission, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t focus on student learning, but it might mean that you need to consciously train yourself to do so. 

Being a natural rule-follower (even a rule-explainer and a rule-supporter) doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person; but it might make it much more difficult for you to be a good teacher.

4 thoughts on “If Teachers Are Natural Rule-Followers, That’s a Problem”

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