Teachers who do not consistently enforce school rules are not always bad teachers or irresponsible individuals; sometimes some of the best most dedicated teachers in a school do not follow the rules. Some teachers, like some school administrators, hate confrontation, and enforcing rules means confrontation with the student, confrontation with parents, possible confrontation with the administration, and often negative vibes from students as well as other teachers. For some, enforcing rules makes their lives messy, uncool, or even unpopular. Others don’t enforce the rules because they feel they have more important things to do, and then there are those teachers who do not agree with the rule, so they simply ignore it.
So, why have rules in school? If so many teachers look the other way rather than enforce the rules, why should schools bother with rules in the first place? The textbook answer is that rules ensure a safe and orderly learning and teaching environment, but do they really? It can be argued that rules provide a fighting chance to bring order to the chaos; however, is that what educators really want? No! What teachers really want is for kids, parents, and school administrators to leave them alone. For many teachers, rules are tools of convenience frowned upon as an inconvenience and waste of time that creates negative confrontations. They see teachers and administrators who dodge the rules as the smart ones. Maybe, they are right, and if so, maybe, rules are not needed in schools!
However, regardless of what some may think, there must be rules! Rules are necessary to enable teachers to teach and students to learn. Unfortunately, like all things, there are good rules and rules that are questionable or make little or no sense. For example, rules dealing with dress codes most definitely fall into the questionable category. As a former teacher and school administrator, I believe dress codes are necessary, but it has been my experience few teachers agree with me. Very few teachers really care what students wear to class. I say this because very few teachers write up students for dress code violations, and the ones that do are often ridiculed by their colleagues. So why have rules, especially a dress code? Why hold a student accountable for a dress code that five out of six teachers in the school day ignore? What is the school administrator to do when the sixth-period teacher turns a student into the office for coming to class naked when that student attended five previous classes in the buff and not a word was said by previous teachers about exposed wingydings in class? The only option the administrator has at the end of the day is to give the kid a hat and send him home. Now, I am slightly exaggerating, but when it comes to dress codes, it is truly almost that bad. I realize correcting a student for a dress code violation shaves precious seconds off teaching the test, especially when there is not a single question on the state assessment that deals with student nudity, unless, maybe, someone slips in a liberal writing prompt.
Over the years, as a school administrator, I developed and enforced more than my fair share of school rules including rules governing dress codes. To this day, I have forty year old former students walk by me in the mall and intentionally pull their tucked shirttail from their pants with a wink (tucking shirttails was probably the most despised rule I ever implemented as a principal). I was a stickler for rules, and maybe too much so, but I believed then, and I believe now if you have a rule it should be enforced. I also believe using a rule for any reason other than its original intent (i.e., allowing students to break the rule as a reward) is counter-productive and sends a mixed message to students, parents, and the community.
Therein lies my issue with current dress codes in schools. Instead of teaching a lesson or addressing a safety issue, dress code rules in many schools today have become a part of the school reward system. If students exhibit good behavior for the month, if there is a big district game, if a student collects the most Popsicle sticks, if a student brings a dollar to school, and the list goes on and on, they are allowed to break the dress code rule on a specified day such as Friday. For example, they are allowed to wear clothing such as jeans or apparel outside of school colors. That may sound innocent, but if the rule was important enough to be created, it should be important enough to be enforced consistently five days a week. If it is okay to excuse students from the dress code on a game day, as a fund raiser reward, or for any other excuse, why have the rule? It is counterproductive to the intent and purpose of a rule to permit students or adults to break a rule as a reward. I am not against rewarding students, but don’t reward them by allowing them to break school rules! Schools always talk about teaching kids to be good citizens; how can teaching them it is okay to break rules be good citizenship? We have enough rule breakers in our society without training more. If it is okay to reward students by letting them break a rule, maybe that rule is not relevant and should be done away with for every day of the week and not just on special occasions. If eliminating the rule for one day is not a problem, the odds are good it would not be a problem if eliminated completely.
When it comes to school rules, it is fairly simple. If a school is going to have a rule, it should be enforced consistently across the calendar. If a teacher signs a contract to work for a school district, the teacher should be up to the task of enforcing the rules of the district or look elsewhere for employment, preferably in another profession. Enforcing rules is not a fun job for administrators or teachers, but it is a necessary job made more difficult when a rule is used contrary to its intent. If a school ever finds it okay to allow students to break a rule, it is time the school re-evaluated that rule. If wearing jeans to school is okay on certain days as a reward, then it is ludicrous to ban them on all other days since it is obvious jeans do not pose a threat to a safe and orderly school environment.
If a school rule can be suspended as a whole or in part as a reward, then the rule has little if any bearing on the orderly function of the school and should be eliminated from the student handbook altogether. The purpose of a school dress code is not to teach kids that rules are made to be broken or to provide a cash cow for local clothing vendors. The purpose of the code is to enhance school safety and student learning five days a week. Giving students permission to break a rule periodically sends the message to adults and students alike that the rule has little to do with safety and learning – at least not every day of the school year. The bottom line is enforcement of rules must go beyond convenience; teachers and administrators should enforce the rules (dress code or any other rule) or dump the rules!
©Jack Linton, February 12, 2017