Rule Followers, Unite! And Stay Alive…

Meme wisdom: Those who have stayed inside, worn masks in public, and socially distanced during this entire pandemic are the same people who are used to doing the whole group project by themselves.

Of all the hundreds of things I’ve read about distancing, risk assessment, statistical analyses and their failings, back to school/stay home, and whether masking is really an IQ test—I like this one the best.

Every teacher with a couple years’ experience recognizes those kids: the ones who do what they’re supposed to do, even if it means picking up considerable slack generated by other kids. Community-minded kids are not always academic superstars, by the way—some of those really resent having to share their superior intellectual skills in the service of a good grade for a group. They will let the teacher know that, too.

In my classroom, rule-followers were kids who retrieved the percussion mallets or folders, after class. Students who showed the person next to them the correct fingering—and said ‘good job’ to their stand mate, when they mastered the Ab scale.

After all, we were playing together. Music is not an interpersonal competition—it’s a group project. We need each other. That was the party line in the band room, anyway—and most kids actually believed it and lived it. It didn’t come naturally, however.

The question is: how do cooperative kids get to be that way? What is the secret sauce that feeds a sense of community responsibility over personal gratification? How can we have pride and true excellence, while staying within the guardrails of kindness and collaboration?

The quick and easy answer is that children learn (or don’t learn) this concept at home: Our family is a team. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be selfish. Use your manners. Think of others. Share.

I would suggest that students also learn (or don’t learn) these behaviors and beliefs in school—and from absorbing an endless stream of media. And by living in the United States. As Bob Wachter says:

America is good at many things. But handling a pandemic—at least in our current political atmosphere—isn’t one of them. In fact, we suck. We’re too individualistic, too spoiled, too vain, too partisan, and too willing to believe misinformation, conspiracies or craziness.


Still, I’ve been having conversations with teachers—both retired, and still in the classroom—who express surprise and horror at things their former students are saying online: No way am I wearing a mask. This whole thing is so overblown. Even if we get a vaccine, I won’t trust it. I need a haircut! This violates our constitutional rights. I heard they’re just saying everyone who dies had COVID. I think Bill Gates is behind this.

So much for the value of science, the actual documents and principles of our government, statistical analysis and media critique skills. Nice job, Teach! Sigh.

In a class on International Education, a Japanese teacher told us that the first goal in every elementary classroom in Japan was a focus on building community—acceptance of every child, no matter what their academic skills or personality, as a valuable and functional member of the group. We work together, we clean together, we play together, she said. It’s our social foundation.

Indeed, many teachers in the United States do several of the same things—build their classroom communities and procedures for working together early in the year, knowing that it’s a worthwhile investment of time that pays off in better discussions, a better atmosphere, better individual and group work. Whatever success teachers had in their lightning-quick shift to distance learning was built on relationships that were nurtured early in the 2019-20 school year.

The problem is that these practices—establishing caring communities, cooperative learning—aren’t always valued in the American system. Following agreed-upon rules becomes a fool’s game, something that only suckers and goody two-shoes types buy into. Japan is a homogeneous society, we’re told—but we, here in the home of the so-called free, are more diverse. We must rely on our individual strengths and ruthless determination to get ahead.

And so we end up with this—and this, both of which illustrate the point where  refusal to comply with simple rules becomes psychopathy. Plus—staggering COVID infection and death rates that could have been prevented or mitigated if everyone—parents, educators, and political leaders—did their part and followed the guidelines.

How do we get people to obey the rules? Ask a teacher. A few quick thoughts:

  • Mandates and punishments seldom work to change behavior in schools. Likewise, we can’t arrest every person who tries to enter a business without a mask, or crowds behind us in line. The more time we spend enforcing rules and punishing students, the more we get this escalation and anger. Schools now defunding in-house police officers are moving in the right direction. Force is the blunt instrument of compliance, as some segments of American society know only too well. Force leads to more force, and all of this is based on fear, a terrible motivator.
  • Incentives have temporary value. Teachers who gave obedient students Jolly Ranchers know this–it’s basic Skinnerian conditioning, and eventually masks the real goal in favor of the reward. You can give customers wearing masks five percent off their purchase, but the habit is short-lived.
  • Community disapproval sometimes works, if gentle, but it can horribly backfire, as any teacher with one recalcitrant troublemaker prone to public fit-pitching will tell you. Being shut out of a community is a painful experience for all humans, children and adults. It seldom leads to permanent changes in attitude and can, over time, damage children and adults. Use cautiously.
  • Persuasion seems to be a wonderful way to change anti-community behaviors. If only it were quick and easy, to just ‘listen to the scientists’ and do the right thing. It doesn’t matter what experts and authorities have to say or how many times you post that clever graphic about the percentages of virus suppression with/without masks—persuasion and its ugly cousin, shaming, seldom work without a long, gradual period of shifting values. We’re a nation of skeptics, encouraged by myth and law to ‘stand our ground’–and our selfish habits die hard.
  • Modeling can be effective in schools, especially adults who model kindness and cooperation. When children see adults behaving responsibly and with a generous spirit, they get the idea that we’re better off working together (at least at school). Modeling works less well with adults, but it’s always worth trying.
  • Leadership is a powerful tool in sustaining a school community and creating a climate of safety and caring. I know lots of teachers and school leaders who had students and staff eating out of their hands, due to strong character and clearly expressed values. We have seen some genuine political leadership during this crisis, as well as abject failure. In fact, it’s never been clearer how much leadership matters—it’s emphatically not true that all politicians are crooked and only interested in benefitting themselves.

The literature on leadership is vast and often contradictory, but every nation that has been successful in quickly changing the habits of its citizens to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus has powerful and well-regarded leaders. In the battle to get citizens to follow the rules we need both leadership and courage. We also need to remember that all these tools can be used for the wrong ends.

It takes courage to call out citizens who are endangering others, people who value their own temporary pleasure over the well-being of others. Heedless people. Selfish people.

People who are tired of being the ones who do all the work in that whole group project, UNITE!

Photo by Will Harper. The local sheriff, when contacted by marina staff, declined to come.


  1. As a 42 year high school teacher, it only took the first day of school to determine the “disrupters “, the rest of the year was spent trying to reach them. Some of them you could convince that their behavior not only affected their classmates learning but their own, some you could not reach.
    In today’s “adult” settings I find myself picking out the “disrupters” and wishing that I or other educators could have reached them that somehow we have failed!



    1. Thanks for commenting. I can’t say that I could identify disrupters in a day, but the more you teach, the quicker the process of figuring out who is likely to act outside of community norms, once they’re established. The trick, I think, is in figuring out why they’re disruptive or unwilling to follow guidelines–what’s in it for them? Is it assumed privilege? Is it anger? That takes a longer time.



  2. I’m rather uncomfortable lumping “rule followers”, “cooperative kids” and other good and kind and caring kids into one category (with the implication that the disrupters, the uncooperative and the “bad” kids are all a separate category). For instance, my best friend in elementary school was constantly in trouble for breaking the rules and disrupting class. But when the “retards” (yes, I’m ashamed to say we used that term – it was the 80s) mainstreamed into our class starting in 5th grade, he was the first to not only protect but to actually befriend them. He didn’t think much of petty rules, but he had a heart of gold and he could be reasonable if he could see where someone was coming from and the human (as opposed to bureaucratic) sense behind a rule.

    On the other hand, there were kids in my middle school and high school who were masters at being “cooperative” (with the teacher anyway), but they were positively vicious to other kids, particularly those weaker and of lower social standing than they were. They never got in any trouble because they were the “good” kids. In fact, if you stood up to them, you’d get in trouble for being “uncooperative”.



  3. Thanks for commenting.

    I’m sorry if I gave readers the opinion that I thought kids were divided neatly into two groups–rule followers and rule breakers. There were plenty of Eddie Haskells in my teaching career (‘that’s a lovely blouse you’re wearing, Mrs. Flanagan’) and kids who were inclined to bend the rules in various ways (including academically as well as behavioral guidelines) but were also kind, generous and community-minded.

    And–more importantly—students who are drop-dead rule-following suck-ups in one class might be very different with a different teacher. I observed that a lot–kids who struggled to toe the line with one set of expectations and were thriving under another.

    All of this is just normal variance. But when the circumstances could lead to a serious or even fatal illness, or injury to the student or others, the stakes are different. I live in tornado country, and have been in the path of a tornado more than once, while supervising students. Students must follow orders for their own safety. I’ve taken kids out of the country, and had to give explicit instructions for border crossings, where a smart-ass remark can hold up four buses for hours and hours. When it’s not just making it to class before the tardy bell, kids who don’t think rules apply to them (and there are some) can endanger others.

    Again, I’ve found that modeling, leading and (sometimes) a little group pressure can make kids more amenable to rule-following. Not always, though.



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