Rules that helped me get through 33 years in the classroom, make less mistakes, and make the best of bad situations that did arise
LEROY JETHRO GIBBS' RULES
Do you watch NCIS? If you do, like so many other people do, you probably know that Special Agent LeRoy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) has all kinds of rules for how to conduct business. I had my own as a teacher. I suspect most teachers do. I’ve made a list of the rules or sayings that I used to remind myself of when things didn’t go the way I wanted them to with students. They served me very well, so I’d like to share them with you and hope that they might work as well for you.
ADVICE IS STUPIID BECAUSE FOOLS WON'T USE IT
There’s one catch though, and it's kind of summed up in a Tao philosophy I was taught in REBT classes: "Advice is stupid because fools won't use it, and wise men already know it". I don't like the use of the word "fool", but apparently that's the way it translated. What I've always taken it to mean is that you always have to be in the right mental and emotional place to access and act on any advice others give you. Most ancient philosophies considered making yourself angry "foolish". For example, an ancient Chinese proverb, "A man who angers himself and seeks vengance should dig two graves. One for himself, and one for the enemy he seeks to destroy". If you make yourself angry, it’s hard to do so. A simple example is when others tell someone who is angry “Don’t let it bother you. Just ignore them”. That’s perfectly good advice, but not advice that an angry person can act on as long as they are angry.
ANGER IS OUR #1 ENEMY OF EFFECTIVENESS
Anger is a teacher’s biggest enemy of effectiveness. It’s emotional nitroglycerin. It’s half of our fight or flight response. Anxiety is the other half, and teachers often start out with anxiety and it morphs into anger and they fight with students. Anger is intended to help us deal with real threats to our lives, but like so many other people, teachers too often imagine threats where they really don’t exist, or magnify ones that might out of proportion to reality by the way they choose to look at things before, while or after things happen.
Anger causes anyone to react or even overreact to what’s happening. People are less likely to consider consequences before acting when angry. They are less likely to learn from their own or others experiences. People are more likely to violate their own morals and values when angry. All those things might make sense if we were dealing with a true threat to our lives – it’d be about surviving at all costs. However, as I said, people too often imagine threats where they don’t exist, or needlessly magnify ones that do. For all these reasons, anger can make otherwise smart, well trained people do stupid things. For a teacher, that might even mean becoming verbally abusive, or even putting his/her hands on a student. YouTube is full of videos of teaches saying and doing stupid things because they made themselves angry, courtesy of student cell phones.
LEARNING TO CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONAL THERMOSTAT
I’ve written a number of articles and posted them on this site about learning to have control over our emotional thermostats, so I will simply invite you to read those. For example:
Or, you could check out my website for Teacher ESP or Effectiveness and Stress Prevention at:
That said, here are some rules or saying I found useful in my 40 years of teaching, 33 of which were in the classroom. Marc Denny was a counselor at Palatine HS in the Chicago suburbs, and taught graduate classes for teachers. I learned a lot for him, and he always had great sayings and rules.
Rule #1: If you can’t make something better, at least don’t make it worse (First do no harm rule)
I was a paramedic for many years. In medicine we have the "first do no harm rule". If you can't make a patient better, at least don't make him/her worse". We can’t make kids better. Only they can do that for themselves. But we can say and do a lot of things that can encourage them to get worse, and too often do. At the very least, we should try to avoid doing that, just like paramedics, nurses and doctors do with their patients.
Rule #2: "There are two ways to make what you don’t like worse, do nothing, or overreact to it” Marc Denny
More often than not, teachers, administrators and parents do the latter. Kids do too. And it’s usually because they all make themselves angry. However, it can also happen because they make themselves anxious, depressed, ashamed or guilty.
Rule #3: “Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing” Marc Denny
Too often teachers and administrators think they HAVE TO do something about everything students do. Thinking we HAVE TO do something is a form of irrational thinking. We don’t HAVE TO do anything. A HAVE TO mindset can cloud our judgment, cause us to make mistakes, and make us blind to alternative and better solutions to our problems with students. Many things take care of themselves if we just don’t overreact and make them worse. “Fires” will burn out if we simply don’t add fuel to the fire. Too often, because teachers think they HAVE TO do something, they do the equivalent of exactly that – throw fuel on the fire.
Rule #4: If you think, feel, say and do what others always have with a troubled and troublesome student, you’ll get what others have always gotten. So think, feel, say and do something different.
Another version: If we keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing what WE always have with a troubled or troublesome student, we also keep getting what we’ve always gotten.
Troubled and troublesome kids will have a tendency to recreate their crummy past with other adults. It’s because they have cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” that they keep slipping into. “Ruts” make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic, and it’s why people tend to recreate their pasts. Both these things could be good news or bad news, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions the “ruts” lead to, and what a student’s history has been. It’s as if they want to reproduce a tragic play they’ve starred in many times before and ask us to audition for a part in that play, a part played by their parents and other teachers in the past. Unfortunately, teachers too often jump at the chance. I’ve always refused to be part to that, and instead always try to encourage them to be the star in a healthier play, the play they’ve always wanted to be part of. Kids really are playwrights, more than they realize. A person’s history isn’t, and never need be his/her destiny.
Rule #5: “Perfect execution can’t compensate for implementing the wrong solution” IBM Executive (Marc Denny)
Schools typically do discipline by the book, even if at times it’s overdone and counterproductive. But too often it’s not the best way to help students. We need to set limits with students, and there’s nothing wrong with using consequences to encourage them to abide by and respect those limits – as long as they are related, reasonable and respectful (the 3 R’s of consequences). But consequences don’t help students learn how to better manage what goes on inside them (their thoughts and feelings) that causes them to misbehave. It only gives them reason to stop misbehaving. Because they have “ruts”, and usually haven’t been given the necessary “tools” to change, they often won’t be able to.
Rule #6: “It takes one fool to backtalk, and two to make a conversation out of it” Marc Denny
I would never use the word “fool” to refer to anyone, teacher or student. But the point is that students can’t argue with themselves for very long. As I noted earlier, a fire will burn itself out if we simply don’t throw fuel on the fire. Too often teachers do, and the false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection anger gives them precludes them from seeing just how much they are.
Rule #7: “A problem is a misbehavior that gets mismanaged” (Alfred Adler)
Too often teachers make “mountains out of mole hills”, taking a simple misbehavior and making it into much more than it is, or needs to be, simply because of the way they choose to look at things before, while and after things happen. An authoritarian mindset for example, will cause teachers to find more to get upset about, and to get more upset than if helpful or necessary about what does. This in turn causes them to react and overreact. As I said earlier, there’s two ways to make something you don’t like worse, do nothing and overreact to it. Too often teachers do the latter. Then administrators have a real problem by the time it gets to their level.
Rule #8: “The further into discipline we get, the more positive it should become” Marc Denny
The exact opposite typically happens in most schools. Teachers and administrators reactions (and that’s what they usually are instead of responses) to student misbehavior becomes increasingly punitive and negative. And when it doesn’t work, too often they simply do more of the same more often, and for longer periods of time.
Rule #9: “A consequence given out in anger is punishment” Marc Denny
Kids often will have the “mistaken” goals of power and control, and even revenge. The feeling that is associated with these “mistaken” goals, and that drives behavior intended to achieve them is anger. Teachers should never have these “mistaken” goals when dealing with student misbehavior, but too often they do. The reason being that they make themselves angry about what the students do because of the way they choose to look at things. They are often predisposed to make themselves angry because they have an authoritarian mindset. They often have that “rutted” in their brains from the way they were parented. In the absence of professional training, they typically plug into those old cognitive and behavioral “ruts”.
Rule #10: Consequences should be Related, Reasonable and dispensed in a Respectful way. (These are the 3 R’s of consequences) Marc Denny
Detentions and suspension are usually unrelated to the “crime”. Suggesting or even requesting that a student offer an apology for something they said or did to another student in lieu of a detention or suspension would be more related. Suspending a child from school for bringing a squirt gun to school on a hot day is not reasonable, but the kind of thing that you read about in the newspaper because schools adopt “zero tolerance” policies. In the past, when commercial fishermen were trying to net tuna, they sometimes got dolphins instead and the dolphins drowned in the nets because their air breathing mammals. Zero tolerance policies often set the stage for catching and drowning some dolphins in the nets you intend to catch tunas with. Finally, consequences should be dispensed in a respectful. Too often they are not because teachers do so in anger.
It’s like that classic scene in the movie classic “The Breakfast Club” where the dean keeps asking John Bender “You want another one?” in referring to detentions. Bender ended up with eight Saturday. Unrelated, unreasonable, and dispensed in a disrespectful way. I’ve always said that if I was that dean, I would have called John in on Monday morning and said something like “Look, we both got carried away. What do you say we just forget about those detentions and try to find a way to get along?” Canceling the eight Saturdays would be a great show of good faith, a peace offering, and a great example of doing something different (Rule #4)
Rule #11: Students will forget what we teach them, but never forget how we treat them
Most people have teachers they remember because they really liked them, and others they remembered because they really didn’t like them. It’s rarely because of what subject a teacher taught them, or how much they learned. Most people forget much of what they do learn in a class. It’s more often than not because of how the teachers treated them, and whether they felt like the teacher cared about them and had their best interest at heart, or not.
Rule #12: “A misbehaving student is a discouraged student” Don Dinkmeyer
Misbehaving students typically have had a lifetime of being told and believing they don’t live up to expectations. That’s the formula for shame. When you believe you haven’t and don’t live up to expectations, it’s easier to imagine that you won’t in the future. In that way shame breeds anxiety. Low self-esteem is really just shame about the past and anxiety about the future because of it. Believing you don’t live up to expectations and imagining you won’t again in the future makes every day life events bigger threats than they are or need to be. This often causes students to adopt the “mistaken” goal of avoidance of failure. You’ll get either “turtles” who such into their shells, or “rattlesnakes” that are quick to coil, rattle and even strike out at others. Either response can be perceived as misbehaving, but it’s the rattlesnakes teachers make the most mistakes with. It’s because they take offense at the posturing, and see it as disrespectful rather than defensive. Too often, they do the equivalent of poking a rattler with a stick. That never ends well.
Rule #13: “Don’t discipline from adrenaline” Marc Denny
Adrenaline is what we produce when we perceive threats to us and plug into our fight or flight responses. As I noted above, too often teachers will needlessly imagine threats where they don’t exist, and magnify ones that might out of proportion to reality. They do that simply because of the way they choose to look at things. They plug into their fight or flight responses, generating intense and needless anxiety, or anger.
Rule #14: Being a teacher is like being a handyman. Everyday there are things that get broken and need fixing
That’s just the way it is, and what you’d expect when you put twenty or more kids, some of whom have all kinds of psycho-emotional-social issues and problems because of prior experiences, into a room with each other and a teacher. If you expect, or worse yet demand that such things not happen, you just set yourself up for getting more upset than is helpful or necessary. The bigger the difference between your expectations and reality, the more emotion you’ll generate, usually needlessly and to no good end.
I instead always look at such problems as challenges, and opportunities. I took pride in being able to fix whatever got broken, and do so better than I had in the past, and better than other teachers. Furthermore, I never viewed things I didn't like as problems. I simply chose to view them as EVENTS - something that simply happened, just like things happen to everyone esle, that I had to decide how I wanted to look at, make myself feel about, and deal with, just like everyone else has to, and has since the beginning of time. I also chose to look at such EVENTS as challenges and opportunities - opportunities to get better at dealing with things I didn't like, and students, and to prove I ws as good a teacher as I wanted to be. There's a whole article on this site about "MINDSET" being the key to dealing with everything, including those troubled and troublesome students we often have.
Rule #15: "If your only tool is a hammer, you treat every kid like a nail" Marc Denny
If the only tools you have are raising your voice, criticizing or threatening kids, handing out detentions and kicking kids out of class, you’re probably going to end up doing a lot of all these things, and increasingly so as the year rolls on, and you’re career unfolds. It’s important to remember that sooner or later, those you kick out will be coming back. It’s better to find more helpful ways to deal with them than simply yelling, criticizing or threatening, handing out detentions or kicking them out. Even if they don’t come back, someone else, somewhere, is going to have to deal with them. We all pay for it one way or another down the road.
Rule #16: You never want to be another nail in a kid’s coffin (academically, or otherwise)
It’s easy to do that without intending too, or realizing it. Teachers can get so caught up in reacting to what a student does at the time that they don’t consider the big picture, or consider what long term effect many teachers saying and doing much the same things to a student might have in the long run. A simple but important example is telling a student “You should be ashamed of yourself”. That should never happen. We have every right to want kids to do what we ask, but saying this could end up being a “nail in a kid’s coffin”. Too often teachers wrongly believe that kids misbehave because they have no shame. Actually, it’s usually quite the opposite. Chronically misbehaving students usually have had a lifetime of feeling shame. Trying to shame them into behaving the way you want them to is like giving an alcoholic booze to get them to stop drinking. Not going to work.
Shame is the primary disturbance students often end up seeking relief from with alcohol and drugs, or even by attempting suicide. If they do any of these things, having told them “You should be ashamed of yourself” could very well have been another just one of many nails in the student’s coffin. Another simple example is simply giving a student one more F's on his/her work. The damage done by F's is often cumulative, and it ends up being the reason kids shut down and eventually drop out. Sometimes I would simply refuse to give a kid one more F. I would either not give any grade, or instead give them a passing grade, or even an A just to shake things up.
Rule #17: Any job is easy if you use the right tool
That’s what to older guys used to tell me when I worked construction as a teenager, “Kid, any job is easy if you use the right tool”. That’s true in dealing with students as well, both in dealing with their misbehavior, and helping them learn to better self-manage or self-regulate. I invite you to read about “tools” I believe all teachers should have at:
And to read about tools I think we should be giving to all students at:
Finally, to read about the steps I think we should take with our most troubled and troublesome students to help them find their way at:
Rule #18: “Never use a cannon when a peashooter will do” Jerry Rankin
Too often teachers believe that you have to come down hard on students at the first sign of misbehavior. The idea is to give them reason to never do what they did again. The problem we always face is that we never have any control over how students will choose to look at what we do to them, what “lesson” they will learn. Too often overdoing it in the beginning will just cause them to get angry, adopt mistaken goals like power and control, or even revenge, and behave stupidly, and in self-defeating ways.
Rule #19: Invite their cooperation instead of demanding their obedience
For a couple of reasons. One, there are always some students who are quick to adopt the “mistaken” goals of power and control and do the opposite of what you want them to do, just to prove a point - that you don’t and can’t control them. Demanding obedience, and thinking, talking and acting like you do control them just invites them to behave stupidly. Two, when you demand obedience, it creates a bigger and needless gap between your expectations and reality. That just causes you to find more to get upset about, and to get more upset about what does happen than is helpful or necessary.
Rule #20: Do as much as you have to, but as little as you need to, to get their cooperation
I always started the year by telling students I really don’t want to get into their lives any more than I have to. I would admit that I don’t control them, never will, and don’t want to. I know experts say that teachers should make their rules clear from the start, but I’ve always told students, “Look, you’ve been in classrooms long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, what makes learning possible, or get in the way”. Then I would tell them, “I’ll be glad to stay out of your life. I’ve got enough in my own life to deal with without trying to take on things in yours. But I have a job to do, and I also have to provide a safe environment for every student in here. So if you want me to stay out of your life, do what you know makes sense to do in a classroom, and you’ll never have to worry about me getting into your life. But do things that make your learning or the learning of others more difficult, or that makes it unsafe for someone to be here, and you can count on me getting into your life. And I’ll do as much as I have to, but as little as I need to, to get your cooperation”.
Rule #21: “If a student goes ballistic, the last thing we need is a teacher going with them” Marc Denny
You can take a simple misbehavior and escalate it into WWIII by getting angry. It’s like that scenario that’s hung over all our heads since nuclear weapons came to be. One side launches its ballistic missiles, the other side responds, and we have WWIII and massive destruction – even a nuclear winter. An analogous thing can happen if a teacher follows a student’s lead and goes ballistic with him/her.
Rule #22: “We need at least one adult in the room at all times” Marc Denny
When I ran my “Tool Time” groups, I would often ask my guys to relate what had transpired between them and teachers that got them into trouble. I realize that there’s always the chance that they would skew what had happen to protect themselves after the fact. But too often I heard about teachers saying and doing things that just didn’t seem “adult” like. Anger will do that to teachers, or any adult for that matter. For example, one of my guys was engaging in some attention-seeking behavior and the teacher says, “You’re a smart ass, aren’t you?” So my kid says “And you’re a fat ass” and gets kicked out of class. There was no adult in the room at that moment. I used to tell my kids, “We always need at least one adult in the room. If the teacher won’t be the adult, I want you to be”. Easier said than done of course.
Rule #23: “The problems of man are man-made. They can be solved by man” JFK
This is one of my favorite sayings. If you really analyze all those things teachers think are “wrong” with students, and the “problems” they have with students, you can usually trace them back to what adults said or did to them at some point in the past. That can in turn be traced back to how those adults choose to look at what those kids said or did, and how they made themselves feel because of it. Kids weren’t born the way they are. They are man-made. What man breaks can also be fixed by man, be it a car or some type of equipment, or a child.
Rule #24: “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it” Einstein
Dr. Alex Molnar talks about “frozen perceptions”. They are basically ways of looking at things that get practice and rehearsed, and that become “rutted” in brains. That makes them automatic. Molnar contends that when we have chronic problems with students, “frozen perceptions” are often a major factor in maintaining the chronic problem situation. Teachers have them about students, students about teachers, and students about themselves and each other. Molnar’s suggestion: find a new, more positive way of looking at things, and try behaving in new ways consistent with that new way of looking at things, and see what happens. There’s even a strategy called “The Miracle Cure”. You simply imagine a student takes a pill overnight and becomes the student you would like them to be. Then you consider how you would talk and act differently toward that student if he/she did that. Then do it and see what happens. It’s amazing how well and often this works. And it starts with changing the way you look at a student.
Rule #25: Sometimes the job is about protecting kids from themselves
Kids come to us with all kinds of cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”. These “ruts” make their thoughts automatic, and cause them to recreate their pasts. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions their “ruts” give rise to, and what their pasts have been like. Some will have “ruts” that cause them to have “mistaken” goals, and behave in unacceptable, unhealthy and self-defeating ways. Teachers often have their own “ruts” that cause them to do the same. It’s like a disaster looking for a place to happen. As I noted earlier, some students will try to recreate a tragic play that they starred in earlier in their lives, and try to invite us to audition for a part in that play, playing to role of their parent or former teachers. Teachers need to not get sucked into helping kids recreate their crummy pasts.
One important way to protect students from themselves is to learn to have an internal locus of control – that no one upsets us, we upset ourselves.
Some kids will have the “mistaken” goals of power and control, and even revenge. They will usually think they make teachers angry, and teachers usually think the same. So when a teacher makes him/herself angry, it gives the student a false sense of having power and control over the teacher. That will simply reward and reinforce the behavior the teacher might find offensive. By learning to have an internal locus of control, we are less likely to make ourselves angry, and unknowingly reward and reinforce behavior we don’t. So it’s a way to protect students from themselves. It also helps to learn to recognize our common irrational thinking, and practice correcting it.
Rule 26: "Too often, we expect those who are least able to change, to change first, and change the most. We need to make the first move" Marc Denny
As I just noted, kids will come to us with all kinds of pre-existing cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”. That will make their thoughts, feelings and actions automatic, and resistant to interventions and attempts by them to change for the better. Too often teachers expect, and even demand that students change first, and change the most. That’s a set up for finding more to get upset about when they struggle to do so, or do, and then revert back to their old ways. We need to be willing to lead the way. Change can be just as tough for teachers because they too have “ruts”. Some will even double down on their thoughts, feelings and actions even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they’re not helping. They do that in part because they have “ruts”, and in part because anger gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protec
Rule 27: Never ask a question for which you won't like the answer
For example, "How dare you do that in my classroom?", or "How could you do something like that?". Then there's that one that parents so often ask "How could you have been so stupid?" The answer to all these questions is unfortunately "Easily". It often doesn't take much effort or energy for kids to say and do what they do. It's easy for them. As for "How could you be so stupid?", they're fallible human beings like the rest of us, who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives worse.
When I taught the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life to my students, Tool #5 was knowing how to correct irrational thinking. The questions above are really just demands in question form. They are basically saying you CAN'T or SHOULDN'T have done what you did. In Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Education (REBE) clients or students are taught that the answer to such question when they ask them of others is "Easily!". But I used to always caution my students that if their parents ask such questions, it wouldn't be a good idea to respond with "Easily". Unfortunately, based on the smirks many of them had on their faces, I suspect they couldn't wait to use it to get a rise out of mom or dad. The important thing though is that it is the correct answer, and that you avoid asking questions for which you won't like the answer.
Rule 28: No one upset me, I upset myself
The vast majority of teachers, and people walking this planet have what is called an external locus of control. That means that they see what others (like students) say and do, and what happens as the cause of how they feel about anything, including themselves, others, life and what happens. That puts them at the mercy of people that they can't and don't control, and their life events, some things about which they can't control either. This often leads to them feeling worse than is necessary or helpful, for longer than necessary. It cause them to actually give away the real power and control they have over their own emotional destiny without realizing it, and to give others and their life events power those things really don't have. It also means that those others and their life events must change for the better in order for them to feel better. What if they never do change for the better?
The truth is that "No one upsets us, we upset ourselves". The reasons that is true are given below.
Rule 29: It's my choice how I want to feel
There's a formula for feelings: EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELING
Anything that happens, that students say or do is technically just an event. Events can be real or imagined (including remembered). Anxiety for example is about imagined events, things that could happen, but haven't happened yet. It's what we choose to think about such real or imagined events that really determines how we feel, Thoughts cause feelings, not events. We have a host of cognitive choices we all make all the time, usually without being aware that we are. The reason being that we make them automatically from so much practice and rehearsal in the past. How we make such choices is understandable given what we have been through, but the way we do is not cast in stone. We can choose to make them differently, and in ways that allow us to feel better. With practice, making our choices these ways can become as automatic as our old ways were before. Those choices include:
How we LOOK AT things
What MEANING we attach to what happens, or might
What we REMEMBER at any given moment
What we IMAGINE will happen in the future
What we FOCUS on
What we COMPARE things to
What we EXPECT of ourselves, others and life in the first place
How much IMPORTANCE we attach to what does happen
There are always more than one way to make such choices. Some ways will make us feel better, others worse. Some way will make it easier to deal with things, others harder. Since he way we make these choices really determines how we feel, then logically it also follows that to a large extent, it's our choice how we want to feel.
Some companion statements;
I'm responsible for how I feel, not others (and that's good news)
It's my problem if I make myself feel bad, not theirs
It's not their job to make me feel better, it's mine (I'm the only one that can)
Rule 30: The Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you
My mother used to always ask me "How would you feel if someone did that to you? That's a good question for teachers to ask themselves. So many times in my career, I saw teachers say and do things to students that they would be furious about if someone said or did the same things to them. For example, if a principal said or did the same things to them in front of other teachers at a faculty meeting that they say and do to students in front of their peers in a classroom. But when teachers make themselves angry, it gives them (or anyone) a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. That often gets in the way of them seeing that they're treating students in ways that they would dislike being treated. There's an old saying that "What's good for the goose is good for the gander". Obviously students are not a teacher's equal in many ways, but when it comes to respecting their feelings, and being deserving of respect and other such things, they are.