Setting Parameters

Setting parameters…this is a skill that may range from a very easy task (boundaries in a playground game) to an almost impossible task (the amount of freedom given to rebellious children). I spent a great amount of time as a school administrator setting parameters, interpreting those parameters, and then enforcing those parameters with staff, students and parents.  This is not an easy task!

            Let me share two of my most effective object lessons for setting parameters in the classroom with children who were determined to try to undermine the lesson and for those who were totally self-centered and unaware of others’ needs. 

            I would bring in a large bag of mixed candies and dump it out in the middle of a table in the room.  All I said to the class was, “This candy is for you.”  Students would sit dumfounded and then one by one start asking, “What do we have to do?”  My reply was silence.  “How much can we have?”  Soon, someone would say, “I’m going to get…” or “I’m not going to be the first…” and then, “What the heck! I’m going!”  Immediately a mad rush started toward the candy…and in a matter of a minute or two, the entire bag disappeared!  Hushed sounds of exasperation were heard among the bragging of others with entire handfuls of candy.

            I then asked the class, “How do you feel?”  The replies ranged from “Man, look what I got!” to the “I didn’t like this!  It’s not fair!”  And then a few said, “I didn’t get anything!”  As students shared the feelings of success and failures, we discussed how life or games would be if there were NO RULES.   By the end of the object lesson, a few shared their candy with those who had none.  But often in the ensuing year, when questions arose over rules, someone would say, “Remember the candy game?”

            The second object lesson has been repeated only on three occasions in my fifty-year career.  It came out of desperation on my part.  I’m not saying it was good or bad…just that it served the purpose.  When I couldn’t get the cooperation of a student in the classroom, or when a student was the ring leader in disrupting the lesson, I appointed him or her to be the teacher for the rest of the day.  At first, the student was pretty proud and was going to show me just how capable he/she was. 

            It didn’t take long until the other students who were partners in the disruptions began to bother, interrupt, and taunt the student who was trying to teach.  “This is harder than I thought.”  But I did not give in…I made him or her continue to teach the lesson plan in spite of the whining and begging for permission to go sit down.  When I did agree to take back my position as the teacher, I asked the student how it felt to be in charge.  Each time I had to do this, the student teacher related how frustrating it was to teach rude students.  They also chided their “partners in crime” for being so rude.

            There is an old saying that we should not judge another person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes.  I found it to be true that when we do let someone else walk in our shoes, he she usually has a new respect for us and what we are trying to accomplish.  Then it is easy to teach the Golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

            In both of these object lessons, some feelings had to be hurt;  however, no one suffered irreparable damages.  In fact, I have become a life-long friend to two of those students.  One of them has come to my classroom on several occasions to visit and to tell my students how I had a positive influence on his life.

            Parents and teachers have to set the parameters or guidelines so that all students may flourish in a safe environment.  Many families seek our school because it offers a safe environment for their children.  However, I must make them aware that the children are safe because we DO set parameters and we DO enforce them.  I feel so sad for many teachers who are suffering for the lack of discipline in many schools.  When these teachers tell me about the lack of control or the failure to act to defend the rights of the teachers against disruptive and violent students, I ache for them. 

            I keep the pictures of two of my former students on my classroom board.  They both died before they graduated from high school.  One was stabbed to death by a student athlete from a rival school, and the other was killed in a tragic truck accident.  Both serve as reminders to me and to my current students that none of us are promised tomorrow.  Today needs to be the best day of our lives.  One student died because he was always in the middle of disruptive students…and even though he was being good and protecting another student, being in the setting where rules were being broken (underage drinking party) allowed him to die in his senior year.  The other was a victim of a driver who chose to speed and caused his load to shift…killing both him and my former student at age 16.  Rules are there for keeping people safe.  The alternative to rules and parameters is chaos.  But keeping the parameters enforced and effective takes hard work!  

-          Kay