Each year before school started I often spent two or three weeks making sure my classroom was “perfect” before my students arrived. I would arrange my room one way; then rearrange it. On the first day of school as the teacher, I found myself as excited as I was on my first day of school many years ago. As a student, I remembered breaking a few hidden rules of school because I had no experience with school. As you begin the school year, I would like to share the story of my first days of school as a way to assist us in remembering to look for the hidden rules that a student may bring to school and to directly teach our students the hidden rules of school through our relationships with our students.

My parents grew up in poverty. My dad stopped going to school in eighth grade to get a job to help his parents take care of his nine brothers and sisters. My dad felt the loss of his education his entire life. As a result, graduating from high school and going to college was an expectation for me. My college degree is in education. As a teacher I had an opportunity to attend a workshop for teachers by Dr. Ruby Payne. Her work resonated with my experiences as a teaching professional as well as in my personal relationships. One component of Dr. Payne’s work includes the hidden rules of class. Dr. Payne defines hidden rules as the “unspoken habits and cues of a group.” In order to be a part of a social group you must understand the hidden rules of the group. As a child growing up with parents raised in poverty, I brought the hidden rules of my parents (poverty) to school with me (middle class). School and work function by using the hidden rules of middle class. In a social situation such as school, if one doesn’t know the hidden rules (and I didn’t) breaking a hidden rule can also break relationship.

On my very first day of school, so very, very long ago, there was no kindergarten. So my first day of school was in a first grade classroom. I was delirious with excitement. What would happen? Where would I sit? What would I eat? Would we get to play? My enthusiasm was dampened when in the first few minutes of my first day at school I broke the hidden rule of school by not being in my seat when the bell rang. I was so excited that I couldn’t sit still and moved from seat to seat with a huge smile on my face and happiness in my heart. The teacher looked at me in an unfamiliar way and in a strong tone of voice said, “Why are you moving from seat to seat, find a seat and sit still”? When someone breaks the hidden rules of the group as I did, the first time it happens people look at you funny. You know you did something wrong, but because hidden rules are unspoken no one tells you what you did.

In the first few weeks of school we began to color. Having no experience with coloring or crayons, I noticed that my coloring sheets weren’t as pretty as my friend sitting next to me. I thought her colored picture was beautiful. I leaned over to tell her and asked how she knew to color so beautifully. Just as I began sharing with my coloring friend, the teacher walked by. The teacher looked at my work, then my friend’s work. She told the other girl how wonderful her work was and told me to be quiet and do a better job. I had broken a second hidden rule and again had no idea what I had done wrong or how to fix it. When someone breaks a hidden rule the second time, and is noticed, people in the group might talk to each other, but again because hidden rules are unspoken no one tells you. They think you should know because they do.

Soon we began learning to read. Reading quickly became my favorite pastime. During reading class, we were placed in small groups with one student after another reading the story round robin style. I could read quickly and always wanted to know what happened next on the other pages, so when it was my turn to read I was always on the wrong page. The teacher thought I wasn’t paying attention and was having trouble reading. I broke my third hidden rule and was sent out of the room. The third time someone breaks a hidden rule, the person is often excluded from the group. For me, I thought my teacher didn’t like me and was afraid to make a mistake. I became timid and shy in the classroom. Learning is about being willing to take a risk. As a student, if I am afraid to make a mistake it will hinder my learning. One way for students to learn the hidden rules is for teachers to directly teach the hidden rules of school. Another way to learn the hidden rules is through a relationship. Dr. James Comer tells us “No significant learning occurs without a relationship.” In other words, students are motivated to learn through relationships.