Book Review I: Setting Limits in the Classroom
Today I was a science technology teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I worked with students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I had a wonderful day working with these students and was very impressed by how well-behaved and respectful they were. The most interesting thing about it was that the notes from the teacher, and comments from the other teachers in the building, indicated that there were many difficult students in the classes. However, I did not have any difficulties with any of them.
I am not trying to say that the teachers at the school are deficient in any way. In fact, I have been incredibly impressed by how well the teachers work with their students, manage their classrooms, and how amazingly they help each student do his very best. I have been delighted to work with these teachers and would be thrilled to be a part of their team. Of course, I don’t have middle grade endorsements, so I am not fully qualified to teach full-time at the middle school level, but if I was, and there was a job available, I would definitely take the opportunity.
So, why did I have such a great time working with these students when others have not? Well, for one, I do not believe that the so-called “difficult students” are always difficult. For another, I have been working very hard at developing a strong, positive relationship with the students at this school. While some substitutes have a reputation for being boring, others are known for being ineffective, and others are considered to be tyrannical, I am known for being none 0f those. Students, teachers, administrators, and other staff know me to be engaging, effective, and fair.
Having finished reading The Dreamkeepers, I decided that I actually enjoy reading the books I acquired during my college courses, so I started reading Setting Limits in the Classroom by Dr. Doug J. Mackenzie, Ed.D. I read a few chapters of this book during my class, but I never read the entire thing. I am not done yet, but I am close to the end, and I wanted to write up my first (of probably several) book review.
Setting Limits in the Classroom has a lot of good, should-be-common sense suggestions; for example: don’t be wishy-washy. He focuses on the need to set firm limits with students while being respectful and provide students opportunities to learn what is and is not acceptable. The most important lesson I have taken from the book is the idea of providing simple, clear directions for students. To draw from an application I used today, I had a young man who was horsing around in the computer lab. I approached him and said, “Jacob, you need to be respectful and responsible in the computer lab. If you can’t behave responsibly, I am going to have to send you back to your teacher.” He tried to test me by arguing, but I cut him off by simply restating the expectation: responsibility in the computer lab or no computer. He did not test me further, and was well-behaved the remainder of the period. Dr. Mackenzie uses many examples from his experiences as an educator, a therapist, and while presenting workshops.
Another excellent point he makes is that expectations need to be established on the first day of school, reviewed and rehearsed during the first week, reviewed regularly during the first month, and revisited throughout the year. Of course, this is not particularly useful advice for a substitute teacher, who typically has between 45 minutes and 7 hours to work with students before he or she leaves. He also discusses that expectations and limits allow freedom in the classroom. One of my favourite quotes is this: “Freedom without limits is not democracy. It’s anarchy…” That is so very true!
I do have a few quibbles with his methods. For one, Dr. Mackenzie seems to identify the classroom teacher as the absolute monarch of the classroom. The teacher sets the rules, expectations, and consequences. The teacher dispenses punishment or rewards. The teacher is in charge. The students are merely there to hear and obey. This rubs against my more democratic egalitarian approach to education that includes the students in the process of establishing expectations and consequences. Of course, there will be expectations that I will ensure are included because, as a member of the classroom community, I am also a part of the process. I also believe that I am as accountable for my actions as the students are for theirs. I am not above the law. My other quibble is that Dr. Mackenzie presents his methods as not just the best method, but the only effective method of classroom management. I have observed many different methods and have seen that different methods work for different teachers. Setting Limits in the Classroom would settle better if he pointed out that his is but one of many effective strategies.
I have already started applying the principles of this book with my students and have seen that it has improved my classroom management. Admittedly, I have also worked with a large number of incredibly compliant students, but I am excited to continue to apply these methods with the students in other schools. I’ll be sure to share whether or not it continues to be successful. At this point, I’ll gladly recommend Setting Limits in the Classroom to any teacher looking to find another strategy to improve classroom management.