The Quest to Overcome the Culture of Compliance

The Quest to Overcome the Culture of Compliance

Written by: Tonia Thompson

July 23, 2021

We all know the teacher (or maybe we are the teacher) who is known for committing to strict deadlines and unwavering due dates. The teacher who is dedicated to teaching students punctuality, responsibility, and accountability at all costs. The teacher who finds themselves often saying, “I am preparing you for [the next grade], [the next step], [life].”  While these teachers have the greatest intentions and truly yearn to help students develop into responsible, accountable young people, I often find myself wondering: At what cost?

What do we gain by sacrificing student learning for compliance?

If it is indeed our responsibility to prepare students for what is next, who is preparing them for what is now?

“They’ve Gotta Learn!”

But, wait. Deadlines in life are as guaranteed as taxes, aren’t they? If we don’t teach kids how to comply, who will?

Life will. Logical consequences will.

If a student doesn’t submit an assignment but is still given the opportunity to complete it and engage in the learning opportunity, will they not face logical consequences? Their workload is doubled (as the current curriculum is still progressing); their parents instill consequences at home (hand over those phones!); and they often miss out on extracurricular activities (coach is gonna bench you until you get caught up in your classes). The authentic consequences find their way to the situation and teach the same lesson that the teacher hoped they would learn.

You must comply!

There are absolutely times when compliance must be the main objective. When we think of safety, compliance is non-negotiable. We cannot allow students to engage in unsafe behaviors (i.e., running in hallways, bringing dangerous items to school, disregarding social distancing recommendations, sharing personal data, etc.) in the name of learning. We cannot overlook compliance when it infringes on the rights of others such as inequitable practices and access.  And we cannot ignore compliance when it detracts from student learning. But there are definitely times when compliance does not help us meet our goal.

Student learning. That is the ultimate objective of schools and teachers, right? However, we have somehow found ourselves sacrificing that very thing in the name of compliance.

  • “I will not let them complete the assignment (opportunity for student learning) because they did not use their time wisely in class” (compliance).
  • “I will not accept the project (opportunity for student learning) because it is not turned in on time (compliance).
  • “I will not allow them into my classroom (opportunity for student learning) because they arrived after the bell (compliance).”
  • “I will not accept the assignment (opportunity for student learning) because it was submitted via email instead of Canvas (compliance).”

All of these decisions prioritize compliance and minimize students’ academic growth.

Do Unto Others…

The irony of teachers who are married to compliance is that we, as educators, despise that very sentiment. We frown at bureaucratic mandates handed down to us that hamper our creativity and agency as teachers. If you don’t believe me, ask any teacher who has been required to spend weeks on “test prep” while sacrificing organic, authentic teaching. We look for ways to avoid it. We procrastinate. We dread it. We resent the intolerance of risk, the fear mongering, and the constraints that are handed down from “the top.”  We recognize the loss of autonomy and the effects on true student learning.

The missing link is the reflection on how our own practices are hampering our students’ opportunities for growth that, at times, has to happen at its own pace. That means shifting the curriculum map a bit and playing with deadlines. All in the name of student learning.

Positive, caring relationships between students and teachers foster learning. Consider how detrimental a compliance culture in our classrooms can be to those relationships. Students feel as though their teachers value the “checklist” over the person. Just as teachers often feel that “they” (administrators, politicians, parents) value the initiative more than the teachers that are being asked to implement them.

Crush the Compliance Culture

When we find yourselves in a power struggle over deadlines, punctuation, handwriting, or the countless other things that detract from the true objective, we must ask ourselves: What is the goal? Compliance or student learning? You will be amazed at the shift in thinking we can experience with that simple inquiry. More often than not the objective is for students to learn. It may take longer than we hoped. It may not be presented in the package that we planned for.  But did they learn something? Did they grow? Were we able to collect meaningful information about our students and what they know and need so we can make instructional decisions? The shift from compliance to student learning can be as simple as considering the following:

  • Re-evaluate the goal/purpose/objective of the task
  • Consider alternative methods of data collection (i.e., oral presentation)
  • Present a “soft” deadline to students and determine a “hard” deadline for yourself
  • Assign consequences for non-compliance that do not affect learning opportunities

When student learning is at the forefront of educational decision making, compliance is easily kept in check and relationships are left intact.



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  • Tonia Thompson has served students as a Special Educator and English Language Arts teacher in both middle and high school settings. She has supported teachers as an English Department Chairperson and now as an Instructional Coach. Tonia earned her Bachelor’s degree in General Education and Special Education from Indiana University and a Master’s degree with an all grade Reading Specialist license from Ball State University. She is currently completing post-graduate coursework toward her Building Administrator’s license. Tonia coordinates and delivers professional development for teachers and facilitates Professional Learning Communities. She is passionate about engaging virtual learners, standards-based grading, providing an equitable learning environment, and cultivating readers and critical thinkers.

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