Tag Archives: bullying

Gifts from the Classroom


1770209_sWhat is the best holiday gift you have ever received? From my childhood I remember a much wished for and cherished bike that sat in front of the Christmas tree, the only new one I ever owned.  This was a stunning event in the household where I grew up, because we usually didn’t receive what we most wanted.  However the elves must have been extremely busy that year because they didn’t do a good job of assembling this bike and it never actually worked just right.  Oh, it looked very pretty, but sometimes when you turned the handle bars, the front wheel didn’t turn – not a reliable characteristic for a bike.  I probably jumped more miles on my on my beloved pogo stick than I ever rode on that bike.  Oh, could this gal pogo!  I bounced everywhere.  Yep, I’d have to say that my pogo stick was my all time favorite gift from childhood.

What I Admire About You

What I admire about youBut as we mature we come to realize the truth of that adage, “The best things in life aren’t  things.”  They truly aren’t.  The best thing in life is making others feel good about themselves.  We all long to feel valued and appreciated.   About two-thirds of the way through my teaching career I discovered an activity that helped accomplish this goal.  I always planned this activity for sometime during the holidays.

As my students entered the classroom they received a stack of blank index cards…one for each of their classmates and one for the teacher.  Silently I had them write the name of a classmate at the top of each card and then write one thing they admired about that student.  I encouraged them to be as specific as possible.  General statements like, “You are a great gal” are not as powerful as “I admire the way you always have something encouraging to say when someone in our class is down in the dumps.”  They were required to write one about me (the teacher) also.  Let me tell you high school teachers need their encouragement too.  There were a few cautions and guidelines I voiced ahead of time.  Absolutely no ‘put downs” would be tolerated, only positive comments were permitted.

A Confession

I admit that occasionally I had a group of students so at odds with one another before we began this activity, that I didn’t require that they write a compliment to every classmate.  I might limit it to 10 or 12 compliments written using time parameters as an excuse.  I wanted to make certain no one was ever hurt by this activity.  But when you set limits like these, you always risk the omission of someone being complimented.  I only used these limits a time or two.  Here’s the real beauty of the activity.  Each time I limited the number of compliments they had to provide, they always got half way through the activity and then THEY requested of ME that they be able to write something they admired about everyone in the class.  That is how great is the power of writing positive words about someone.

Then Comes the Magic


At the end of our time limit, we circled our desks and orally read one card at a time.  One student would read aloud to one other student a single comment while all others listened.  Then the next person in the circle would read a comment about someone else.  I encouraged them to keep changing the people who were being complimented.  “Try and choose someone no one has yet read about,” was my occasional  reminder.  When it was my turn to read I always started by complimenting someone I felt was considered just a little outside the inner circle…the kids not quickly accepted by their peers.  As we listened around and around that circle twenty or thirty revolutions, you could feel the climate of our classroom change. They smiled more easily, eyes moistened, shoulders relaxed, heads nodded as everyone agreed with a compliment being shared orally, and teens relaxed their armor.  Kindness settled softly over our circle like a cashmere blanket. Friends became closer and former adversaries demonstrated tolerance.  When others validate us, we are more likely to notice and appreciate positive traits in others.  The students in my classroom became a family.  There is no greater gift for a student who will be walking into your classroom every day for an entire school year.

Just before our time together ended, I instructed them to pass their cards out to one another.  By taking the time to distribute their compliments in written form, everyone could carry the compliments away and read them again whenever they might need a morale boost. As dozens of students stood to distribute their cards to others, I anticipated it to be quite a noisy time.  It never was.  Why?  The moment they received a card from someone, their eyes were magnetically drawn to the compliments written on those cards. They hungered for that validation from their peers.

Our class was always changed from that day forward.  We became a community working together, a unit.  As a side (but not unimportant) benefit, a bully has a hard time finding a foot hold in a community where everyone has your back.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at Amazon.com

How to Stop a School Bully


When They Don’t Want to Go to School

bullyingTwenty-five years ago my oldest daughter was in junior high school.  I sensed something wasn’t just right because she didn’t want to go to school.  The school nurse also frequently called me telling me that my daughter was in the clinic claiming to be ill.  I’d turn my schedule upside down in my own classroom where I was teaching to go and pick her up only to realize with a mother’s instinct that she really wasn’t sick at all.  She just wanted to come home.

Finally one day, even though she tried to continue to mask her situation, her secrets exploded at home and the truth came out.  Some girls were targeting her at school.  On the day that she couldn’t take it anymore the bullies had gotten her locker combination out of the counselor’s file drawer where they worked as ‘aides’ to the counselors instead of being assigned to study hall.  They used the confidential combination to open my daughter’s locker, and then dumped all her books and belongings in the restroom sink.  Then they turned on the water and left them there for others to discover as the sink overflowed.  Someone came to find my daughter and asked her why all her belongings were being flooded in the girl’s restroom.  They assumed she caused the flood.  That’s when she broke down at home.  She was afraid she would get in trouble for the restroom flood.  She was afraid if she revealed who really did it, they would pick on her more.

She sobbed as she told me this story.  But at the very same time she pleaded harder for my silence and made me promise not to go to school and talk to anyone about it.  She swore that administrators and teachers loved these girls.  They had everyone fooled.  She was sure no one would believe her.  If I went to school and “told on them” they’d know my daughter had told someone their identity and that would only escalate what they would do to her. Unfortunately I knew that this was (at that time) probably true.

These tormentors were the original ‘mean girls.’ They preceded the internet by fifteen years.  Imagine the trouble they could cause cyber-bullying today.   Clearly they showed one personality to adults or they wouldn’t have had access to the counselor’s files. (Of course, this isn’t at all professional and they were probably sneaking to do this).   But their true identity was revealed to their peers, especially to those who felt powerless to stand up to them.  To the masses they were the ‘popular’ girls.

What Did I Do About It?

losing cleepThe first thing I did was toss and turn all night.  I lost quite a bit of sleep trying to figure out how to handle this situation.  She’d made me promise her I wouldn’t go to school or tell anyone.  If I did, would the situation escalate?  She was certain it would. Would my daughter ever trust me again if I broke my promise?  Would she be willing to share her problems with me in the future?

What did I do?  I went to school, of course.  To my credit I didn’t take a weapon.  As I tossed and turned I remembered that I had formerly taught with the assistant principal’s mother in another school district.  She and I were no longer in touch, but it was at least an opening.  I sneaked into that assistant principal’s office when I knew my daughter would be in class.  I told him I knew his mother and how I knew her.  (That shouldn’t have made any difference, but somehow it made me feel better). I then told him that my daughter had made me promise that I would not come to school and let anyone know what she was experiencing.  I demanded his promise that she would never find out I had come.  He said he would honor that request.

Then I described what was happening.  I told him I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.  If I called these girls’ parents, would that make it worse?  Probably.  The girls would deny all of it to their parents.  I’ve known of parents who do this, but it never felt comfortable to me.  I told him I saw it as a school problem and I asked him what he was going to do to solve it without my daughter knowing I had come in.  But I let him know in no uncertain terms that I expected it to be solved quickly and discreetly.

Guess What?

We brainstormed together.  I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to do something that would put my daughter in a more uncomfortable situation.  He came up with a wonderful idea which became the perfect solution.

What did he do?  He sought my daughter out in the cafeteria.  He told her one of her teachers had told him what a great gal she was.  He asked her if she could help him with a project.  In his role as assistant principal in this school he also served as athletic director. That put him in charge of all athletic functions.  He immediately put her in charge of a concession stand.  She was surprised to be sought out and valued by the assistant principal.  He would talk to her frequently in the halls and the cafeteria just being friendly.  She began going to all the games and functions.  She had a talent for this and wanted to live up to his confidence in her.  Soon she took on more and more responsibilities.  He had other students report to her putting her in a leadership role.

What happened to the bullies?  They saw the assistant principal talking to her frequently.  He was well liked by the students.  When they saw that he valued her, they stopped making her a target.  It was a subtle but perfect solution.  She stopped hating school.  She felt accepted and valued at school both during the day and at after school functions.

Did she ever find out that I went to school?  Eventually.  But let me tell you how it happened.  When my daughter (yes, the same one) had her own preteen daughter attending the same junior high school, she talked to me on the phone one day.  This is what she said.  “The school nurse is always calling me telling me that my daughter is sick.  I know she has been having headaches, but I think something else is going on.  I just don’t think she feels comfortable in this junior high setting.  Every morning she pretends to be sick and tries to stay home from school.  I just don’t know what to do about it.”

I paused a long time and then I said, “Do you want to know what I did about it when I had that same problem?”  There was a long silence on the phone.  She didn’t know what I was talking about.  I reminded her of the situation she encountered in junior high and confessed to the promise I had broken.  She was astonished, but by then, of course, not annoyed at all.  The next day she marched right into that junior high, asked to see a guidance counselor and said, “My daughter doesn’t want to come to school.  She just can’t seem to find a place to fit in here.  How can you and I help her?  Before she left the school, the guidance counselor had promised to seek her out and make her a photographer for the year book committee.

My granddaughter called me that night.  She was all excited about this new responsibility.  We bought her a digital camera and she was off to all the games and school functions.  This time there wasn’t a specific bully that we knew of.  I think we solved the problem more proactively before she became the target her mom had become.

When kids feel connected and valued, it goes a long way toward taking the power away from a bully.  I’m glad for all today’s bully hot lines. and the anti-bullying workshops and strategies taught currently.  These are long overdue.

But I am still continually amazed at the power of one teacher, one peer, one administrator, or one role model.  When I approached that administrator he knew exactly what to do.  He had the sensitivity and the influence to turn it all around very quickly.  Adults within our schools have a lot more influence than they would ever believe.  I’ve built wonderful friendships with students in the schools where I’ve taught who were never assigned to my class.  You can build positive relationships with kids in the hallways, standing duty, at athletic functions or walking through the cafeteria.

you can do it

I challenge every teacher to pick at least a dozen kids in the school building that you don’t have in class and focus positive attention on them.  Don’t seek out a ‘star.’  Choose a kid who appears to be on the sidelines. Choose someone who looks like they need a friend.  Choose someone dressed differently.  Smile and speak to them consistently.  Can you imagine what a positive difference we would make in our buildings if we all committed to this strategy?  Why not try it?  What do we have to lose?  A bully? 


TEACH…To Change Lives

Available at Amazon.com

Creating Winners in School


big vs. smallBig or Little?

There is a trend for American schools to grow larger and larger.  Population growth and the economic down turn seem to have made this a reality whether we like it or not.  It makes more economic sense to build one large building rather than to furnish and hire support staff for two, claim the advocates for large schools.  (I know this opening sounds a little boring, but keep reading I have a story to tell).

But how do these larger schools impact students?  Some argue students can be offered a greater variety of subjects and activities when only one building is involved.  But even before I am a teacher, I am a parent and a grandparent.  I wonder how my own loved ones will find a place to fit in.  In the huge school where I live you have to be to a future professional athlete to make the team.  You have to be a future All Star not to sit the bench even after you make the team.   Teens must sing like an American Idol, dance like a Broadway hoofer and act with the skill of an Oscar winner to be cast in a play.  That leaves two thousand other kids trying to find a place to fit in.  And let me make a confession right here…

I Hate Try Outs!

feeling rejected

More importantly kids hate them too.  I remember my humiliation of trying out for cheerleading six times.  (Yes, that is a sad true story.  I’m demonstrating a maturity I don’t even really feel to admit that now).  But I hate it even more for my grand kids. Before the end of their  elementary years in a building with over a thousand other students, I had two granddaughters announce, they would never try out for anything ever again.  They already felt too rejected and excluded to try to participate any further and they hadn’t even reached junior high.

Why are we making younger and younger children audition in order to even participate?  Can’t we do better than Dance Mom? Seriously, is that woman not a bully?  Why do schools have anti-bullying hot lines while that gal has a TV show?  That’s a paradox I find hard to digest.

No try outsThink Differently

We need to think in news ways…ways that will benefit all our students.  If huge schools are the new reality, how can we make all students feel included in our schools.  Let me share a story with you.

When I taught in the elementary grades my individual class put on two shows a year.  First rule:  no try outs!  Everyone was in the play or song and dance production.  I don’t just mean some kids worked behind the scenes and some were on stage.  My hard and fast rule was that every kid had a speaking part in the show.  If you happened to have a big part in one production, you had a small part in the next, fair is fair, but everyone was in.

Is that challenging for the teacher?  Sometimes.  But the benefits for the kids far out weigh the challenge.  I once had a young boy with autism.  He couldn’t generate language on his own.  He could read words off paper, but he couldn’t produce words without reading them.  So on the stage he read his ‘proclamations’ in the style of a narrator between scenes.  I had another boy who couldn’t remember lines at all, but he could show quite a bit of facial expression.  What did we do?  We had him lip sync his lines off a recording of the words while he showed lots of facial expression and body gestures.  It worked great!

When you plan productions this way, you start with the skills of the students and then proceed with your show, not the other way around.  Humor was plentiful, some planned, some not.  Our shows didn’t have the polish of a Broadway production, but they showcased our kids to the best audience in the world…their parents.   One time we did a very, very abbreviated version of The Sound of Music.  All parts were played by twenty second graders and it was over in 20 minutes.

Four years after that mini show, I ran into Alex’s mom in a local restaurant.

“I’m so glad I ran into you,” she said as she spotted me.  She then told me that her sixth grade son Alex had just been cast in the Cincinnati Opera Company’s production of Amahl and The Night Visitors.  She beamed and I was very impressed.

“But what I really wanted to tell you was what he said when he got the part.” she continued.  “He said, Mom I never would have had the nerve to try out, but after all, I already played the part of Captain Von Trapp in second grade.”

We both laughed.  But I’ve never forgotten that conversation.   In a child’s mind, both of those parts had the same importance.  Alex hadn’t realized that every kid in that second grade classroom had a part.  That tiny production gave him the courage to try out for and win a significant role on the stage.  It took my breath away.  What wonderful seeds we plant when we give a young child a chance to shine.

TEACH...To Change Lives book cover

Author’s note:  Alex was a very academically talented young man, however, he chose music as his life’s profession.  He became a jazz pianist and has played the piano at two inaugural balls in Washington DC.