Teachers—How do we be both firm and flexible?




No talking without raising your hand.

It’s a common classroom rule. But do teachers expect it to be followed always, every time, under all conditions? Really?

What about the times when that one student who never participates calls out an answer? Do we risk not hearing from her after insisting on reminding her to raise her hand?

Or during that magical moment when a class discussion gets going beautifully and you can step back and watch students discuss and debate? Do we stifle the discussion by stopping each student and pointing to the “no calling out” reminder on the board?

Teachers need to be firm in enforcing their expectations. But we also need to be flexible when the situation calls for it. How do we do both? Strike a balance!


Balancing Being Firm and Flexible

No late homework accepted, no chewing gum, no hats in class. These expectations are all reasonable in the right context. Teachers must be firm about such policies. Start to allow a couple kids to hand in late homework and soon it’s a pattern. Stop reminding kids about the no-hats rule and before you know it half the class comes in with a hat—and you have no recourse to suddenly reinforce these rules.

And yet there are exceptions: A student who was at the hospital with his sick father all night can certainly hand in his homework late without penalty. A student with attentional challenges may be able to focus by chewing gum, and so we allow it. And for a student with ASD who is pained by the flickering of the classroom’s florescent lights, it’s OK to wear a hat. So we do need to be flexible in our responses to student need.

The benefits

How do you do both? Are these two approaches compatible? First it’s important to recognize that both being firm being flexible have their benefits.

Benefits of being firm

It sets clear expectations: children crave boundaries and firm expectations establish order in the classroom

It provides consistency and predictability: it’s comforting for students to know what a teacher’s response will be to a rule infringement

It staves off excuses: students learn responsibility by being held to high expectations

Benefits of being flexible

It honors that students learn differently from one another: very few rules will universally apply to large classes of diverse learners

It shows students you’re understanding: flexibility shows students that you care and honor their individual needs

It models flexibility we expect from students: teachers ask students to adapt to unexpected changes regularly; we need to show we do the same


The drawbacks

So both are good! But if either is taken too far, it can lead to big problems:

firmThe ultimate firm teacher allows for no exceptions, no matter what. Ultra-firm teachers are likely to be those whose greatest fear is the slippery slope—”if you give em an inch…” as they say.

Being too firm can have extremely negative effects. It ignores the real differences between students, and communicates that their realities do not matter. It can also cause fear among students, stifling risk-taking, and anxiety, particularly for students with ASD, who are frequently rule-bound.

In stark contrast, the ultimate flexiflexibleble teacher allows every rule to be bent—or broken! Ultra-flexible teachers are often those who fear being seen an authoritarian, and so don’t want to impose external forces on students.

Being too flexible can also create big problems in a classroom. It can lead to a chaotic environment, which is not conducive to learning. It robs students of a general sense of order and predictability, and doesn’t hold students accountable for their actions.

Striking the balance

So let’s pull it together. It’s not easy, but there is ample space between the two extremes. Here’s how to balance being firm and flexible:

Start firm

Set and maintain clear expectations for the whole class. Remind students and reinforce the expectations regularly… Just don’t let yourself slip into being overly rule-bound.

Get flexible

Decide when exceptions to are warranted, and communicate to students why you are allowing for the exception… And of course, don’t let yourself fall into the flexibility quicksand by letting more and more exceptions slide.

Communicating the balance to students

Among the many real challenges teachers face, one of the biggest and most important is communicating this idea: that there are rules that we all must follow, and that there are also exceptions to these rules. This nuance may be uncomfortable for students, and can be for teachers as well.

But even more important than communicating this ideas is to embody it. Students should learn that when Dan wears a hat to block out the lights, it’s not about letting him “get away with” something other kids aren’t allowed to—it’s about allowing everyone to learn in a way that works best for them. This is the difference between equity and equality in education, and equity takes some thoughtful flexibility.


For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.

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