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Pick Your Battles

Back in the day it was gum. That’s right. When I began my teaching career it was in a building that banned students from chewing gum. As I remember, the reason was due to some irresponsible gum chewing behaviors: wrappers on the floor, spent wads of the stuff deposited underneath table tops or on the ground. Rather than addressing the concerning behavior, the administration imposed a ban and everyone; teachers, secretaries, custodians invested inordinate amounts of energy harassing students suspected of having gum in their mouths. By the way, it was okay for adults to chew gum if they chose - a perceived double standard that wasn’t missed by the kids.

Early in my administrative experience, I joined a middle school community that had a strict prohibition regarding students wearing hats. The chief culprit was caps, those that honored a brand or athletic team. A few of the kids were suspected to be the young recruits of neighborhood gangs and the specific cap that they sported advertised their assumed affiliation. There were some minor instances when someone didn’t approve of the cap being worn by another student and it would get flipped off their head and find its way to trash can. While certainly not a respectful way to treat another student and his property (yes, “his,” as the targets of this rule were generally hispanic boys), it was a behavior that characterized a very small number of students. However, the principal was adamant about his “no hat” rule, and he expected the adults in the building to confiscate any hats that were observed and to refer the culprit to the office for insubordinate behavior.

I became the principal of the school the following year and I decided I wanted to do something about the disruptive hat rule. With so many other more pressing issues to be concerned about, why were we investing so much energy on this issue? Many of the students struggled academically and suffered under the weight of poverty. Yet, this rule, one that disenfranchised 850 middle schoolers because of the behaviors of a couple dozen peers, was contributing to a negative, punitive school culture. I knew something must be done.

I convened a meeting with the major players of Hat Gate. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you enjoy wearing hats?”


“Do you think that some of the other kids in our school like to wear hats?”


“But, nobody is allowed to wear them because we have a ‘no hat’ rule.”

“Yeh, and it sucks.”

“Would you like to help me change that?”


"I mean it when I say I’ll need your help.”

“We’re in. What do we need to do?”

“Who causes most of the problems with flipping other kids’ hats and throwing them in the trash?”

“We do.”

“I’m not going to ask you to tell me why you don’t like the other guys’ hats. I think I know. But, here’s      the bottom line. It’s disrespectful. You want to be respected, don’t you?”


“Then you have to show respect. It’s disrespectful to all of the other kids who can’t wear hats because you choose to act this way. Understand?”


“So here is what I need from each of you. You can wear your hat on your way to school, but before you come inside our building you need to take it off, put it in your locker and leave it there all day. At the end of the day, once you have left our campus, you can wear it proudly where ever you like. If you promise that you’ll do this simple thing, I’ll relax the “no hats” rule. Are you in?”

“You bet! But, can we wear them sometimes?”

“I’ll make you this deal. If you keep your word, we’ll have a school-wide Hat Day every week, and you can wear whatever hat you choose as long as you treat everyone, I mean everyone, with the respect you want and they deserve. Deal?”


That’s what we did. Every Wednesday was Hat Dat and we could now focus on more important things. And, those boys felt empowered, so much so that they kept their word.

Fast forward to a rapidly changing world; one where technology has become a societal driver. So much so that schools are fighting a battle with cell phones. Virtually every kid has one by the time they are in middle school. It’s their life line, their connection to family and friends, and a source of entertainment. They can also be a powerful tool with so many apps available. Parents buy them for their kids for two reasons: 1) giving in to their incessant whining and, 2) so that they can reach their child easily, 24/7. I wouldn’t suggest for a second that it isn’t distracting and disruptive to have a student’s cell phone go off, complete with its Batman ringtone, in the middle of a class activity. So, a popular solution to this common dilemma is the “Off and Away” rule; an expectation that a student’s device won’t be heard or seen out of their backpack for the duration of the school day. Once again, the focus shifts to enforcing the rule in “gotcha” moments where a student’s prized possession is confiscated.

I’m not setting out to lecture school communities about how to enforce expectations that they value, except to caution that these actions must feel reasonable and be understood by everyone. My approach to our hat problem should offer a clear glimpse of my bias toward blanket enforcements of minor issues. No exceptions, no latitude in “off and away” just doesn’t sound reasonable, and I’m willing to bet that lots of kids don’t understand it. I like the saying: “Never dance with a pig. It makes the pig mad and you’ll get dirty.” Sorta fits, doesn’t it?

Pick your battles.

There will always be a multitude of issues that cry for the attention of school leaders. Often, perceived as immediately critical to the individual who issues the complaint, they may actually be distractions that pull us away from the essential work. Gum, hats, phones? Versus achievement, engagement and relevance? I don’t have to ponder these opposing poles for too long to arrive at a conclusion.

As is frequently the case, I am drawn to the practical wisdom of Alfie Kohn. In a recent article on parenting, which is easily translated to the practices in schools, he wrote:

Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts. Kids will live up to, or down to, our expectations, so it’s better to assume the best.”

Try to say yes. Don’t function on autoparent [autosystem] and unnecessarily deny children the chance to do unusual things. People don’t get better at coping with frustration as a result of having been deliberately frustrated when they were young.”

Don’t be rigid. Predictability can be overdone; the apparent need for inflexible rules may vanish when we stop seeing a troubling behavior as an infraction that must be punished — and start seeing it as a problem to be solved (together).”

Wow. Let’s review that wisdom. The apparent need for inflexible rules may vanish when we stop seeing a troubling behavior as an infraction that must be punished — and start seeing it as a problem to be solved (together).

How can we reasonably expect that children will learn responsibility when they are not given the opportunity to be responsible? How can we possibly assume that kids will become astute problem solvers when we deprive them the opportunity to solve real problems? Another powerful Kohnism: “Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.”

The children in our classrooms, if afforded the opportunity, have a lot to offer and a lot to say if only we listen, in a spirit of compromise, to the perspectives that they are eager to bring forward. The true issue has nothing to do with gum, hats or phones. It’s about the trust they long for, the experience they seek and the education they deserve.

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