Enforcing Classroom Rules Part 2: Surrendering the 1-Up

By Justin Lim on September 7, 2009
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

This was written by an actual high school student:

"What is teenage life to me? That's a good question. If I said what teenage life is to me in one word, it would have to be "hard." No one really gets you and you don't even really get yourself. You're just starting to figure yourself out, who you are and why you are here." - Anonymous

This was written by an actual high school student:

"What is teenage life to me? That's a good question. If I said what teenage life is to me in one word, it would have to be "hard." No one really gets you and you don't even really get yourself. You're just starting to figure yourself out, who you are and why you are here." - Anonymous

By the time most students enter into middle school, there are two profound truths that they have learned whether they realize it or not.

The first is that the world that they live in is controlled and manipulated by adults. The second is that they have to conform to those parameters if they are to be considered successful. This is true in almost every facet of teenage life. If kids don't listen to their parents or teachers, they get reprimanded. If they don't run fast enough, they don't make the team.  In sum, teenagers have learned that much of their lives hinge upon whether or not they can please adults.

For this reason, teenagers have created their own private world where adults just seem to "not get it."  Even the best and the brightest, even the ones with whom we have the best relationships are not excluded from this "world-beneath."  These are simply the ones who know how to "play the game."  Teachers, I challenge you to have your students complete the following sentence. "The people who know me the best are ..."  Almost all students, regardless of how they perform in class, will say "my friends."

I point this out because there are three things that us teachers need to understand. 

1)  In almost all high school classes the default collective student sentiment is "us against you." Trust and respect must be earned and will not be given in deference to the position of being a teacher. Even for those students who respect all teachers in class, believe me, it's a different story during lunch time.

2) Most high school students feel at least some sense of abandonment from adults because they've figured out that their value is measured by what they can do and not by who they are.  For example, they know that the teachers are nicer to the kids who always raise their hands or who get good grades.  They know that coaches cut the players who are not fast enough. 

3) Even though teenagers don't trust adults, almost all teens want to have some sort of meaningful relationship with a grown-up. I don't quite understand this, but I've found this to be true. Moreover, it's been my experience that my toughest and most wounded kids were the ones who craved meaningful relationships the most.

So what does all of this have to do with enforcing classroom rules? The answer to this questions is that we have to learn how to surrender the "1-up" mentality when dealing with our kids. The "1-up" mentality refers to the learned disposition of teenagers, that adults are always 1-up on them.  Adults, by default, have a status advantage over teenagers and both parties know it.   

Please don't misunderstand me when I say that we should surrender the 1-up. I am in no way saying that we should relinquish classroom authority. Rather, I'm saying that we have to change the way we use our authority so that respect, and not intimidation, is our means of running our classes.

Here's an example of what I mean:

A rule is presented such as no cell phones are allowed out in class. A student asks, "why not?" The teacher who relishes his 1-up status says, "because I said so and those are just the rules," and moves on. The teacher who surrenders the 1-up understands that, "because I said so," will only serve to build a wall between her and her kids. Instead, she explains that using a cell phone in a class setting is rude and that if she were to text message in a staff meeting it would be frowned upon. The teacher then goes on to explain that she wants the best for her kids and for them to have every professional advantage possible.

In terms of establishing the rule, the outcome of both scenarios is the same. However, one teacher is strengthening relational bonds, while the other is strengthening a relational-blocking wall.

I could spend forever talking about this, but I think that it would be best if I quickly summed up some characteristics of teachers who know how to effectively surrender the 1-up.

  • The teacher does not embarrass students.
  • The teacher praises publicly, but reprimands privately (as much as possible).
  • The teacher acknowledges his mistakes.
  • The teacher maintains professionalism even when students are belligerent.
  • The teacher explains the logic behind rules instead of simply expecting student to accept "because I said so." 
  • The teacher allows students to voice their concerns about rules (not right away, but later on so as not to disrupt the flow of the class).
  • The teacher is an advocate for students at parent-teacher conferences.
  • If the teacher publicly reprimands a student, the student is restored immediately after. 
  • The teacher calls home for positive reasons in addition to negative reasons.
  • The teacher distinguishes between things that are intentional and unintentional.

Believe it or not, once kids realize that we're not "out to get them," they're much more open than you might expect. Teenagers crave positive role-models in their lives whether they know it or not. Unfortunately, society has taught them that the only way that they're going to get noticed (that is positively noticed) is if they conform to the world of the adults.

Somebody much wiser than me once said, "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care." This is something that perhaps we all already knew, but needed to remind ourselves of.

Warmest regards,

Justin Lim
Rosemead High School
El Monte Union High School District


Students want to know that teachers care, and they are in a safe environment.

Justin This is an amazing entry...I am thinking of how many times I simply moved past a question without really considering how the student might have felt with my response! I especially liked the list of characteristics of teachers who follow the 1 up..we might do well do paste that list on our desks or calendars! You have a lucky group of kids in your classrooms!

[Edit: Response]

Hi Kathy!

Thanks for encouragement!

I definitely agree with your comment. I really have to make a conscious effort to make sure that I respond well to my students' comments.

I also like your idea about posting those teacher characteristics on a desk calendar!

Warm regards,


Thanks for all the information.

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