I remember getting “swatted” with the paddle in Junior High School for allowing my shirttail to hang outside of my pants! Can you imagine such a rule in today’s school environment? Was that really important? Did this rule really teach me something about character or improve my self-image? What was the underlying principle or concern that was going on with that? In other words, what was the thing, or root cause of the rule and could there not be a better rule to develop whatever the school was trying to develop in its students. Well, you may agree or disagree, but it was enforced with consistency and rigor on others and mine behinds. The funny thing was that it was only my friends and others of our ethnicity that seemed to dress with that particular style, most others tucked there shirts in.
I realize that even today some schools do have a dress code, but this usually has to do with trying to keep the gang dress and colors off the school campus, or trying to keep enough clothes on girls to avoid too much attention from male students and faculty alike.
I also remember that the Girls Vice-Principle would stand in the hall way and pick out girls wearing skirts above the knee and would literally pull out a ruler and measure how high above the knee the skirt was right in front of everyone else! If it exceeded the “legal length” (Which I don’t remember what it was but it was not very high), the girl would be sent home to change.
Or how about the police officer who pulls you over at two o’clock in the morning for “rolling” through a stop sign (lovingly referred to as “the California roll”, as one cop put it and I had hoped he was talking about sushi, but he wasn’t) when there is nobody else in sight for miles and instead of warning you, actually writes you a ticket! I’m sure many of you reading this could tell your own stories of frustrating “pettiness” at school, the bank, grocery store, with your landlord, your insurance company, telephone bill, light bill, gas bill, neighbors, church, boss and co-workers, etc.
I realize that the examples I have given here may not seem “petty” to some, but the point is:
Administration leaders and teachers in schools can be petty and I suggest this only leads to emotional and physical energy that could be better spent in other things than trying to play “gotcha” because of all the rules in place that set students up for failure. I’m going to use the example of teachers and schools, but this issue of “pettiness” applies to parents and leaders of organizations as well.
Of course the question is what defines pettiness? Webster’s defines it as: insignificant; trivial; narrow-minded; or mean. Thus, however the teacher (parent, boss) decides to define what rules are petty or not, I suggest the teacher make every effort to avoid falling into the daily “cat and mouse” game that pettiness invites and that some students love to play.
To avoid this emotional time trap, the teacher must decide what is important, what their priorities are, based on principle, rather than subjective “pet peeves” when it comes to classroom culture and the rules of conduct.
As leaders we must choose our battles carefully, lest we be drawn into and “die on the wrong battlefield.” We must know where we will draw the “line in the sand” and when that line is crossed we will take action for the long term good of the whole class and to demand the respect we have earned. This takes discussion, decisiveness and discernment all of which is gained through years of experience.
A general rule of thumb is that too many rules, too many policies, and too much “zero tolerance” only begs for petty enforcement rather than discretion that allows for the solutions of student buy in, positive motivation and a transition to transforming cooperation.
One idea to avoid being petty, or being perceived as being petty is, when at all possible, to include the students in designing the class rules and the punishment for breaking “their” rules. Maybe a focus group can be formed that is represented by one student from each period/class. I know that this may not work or be possible in all circumstances, but it does work in some situations and it is understood that the rules and consequences are not in stone and can be reviewed and revised when necessary. By the way, this is a good way of teaching kids the basics of how our laws are made and ratified in politics and the role of citizens in the process.
Another tool, for the teacher who has kids, is to ask their own kids to evaluate their classroom rules or discuss with them situations they came across and what they did about it.
Youth have a keen sense and intuition of pettiness that we adults seem to lose the older we get. This does not mean that they are always right or that we have to follow their advice all the time, but sometimes they are right and following their advice can work for you.
There is no question that emotional energy is needed in the classroom and most teachers are “spent” or empty at the end of each day as they work through all the preparation of lessons, instruction and dealing with the daily drama from period to period, let alone the drama with other teachers, the administration, parents and possibly their own personal life. Thus, the last thing a teacher needs is to “spend” or waste their time on the “small” issues, rather than “investing” their time in the “larger” issues of educating children.
If one is not careful to examine their assumptions and objectively evaluate their classroom culture, pettiness can rule the day and steal the joy, satisfaction and significance of teaching and leading.