The Outsiders: A Strategy to Stop School Violence at Its Root
One teacher’s plan to nip bullying in the bud? Look for the lonely child.
A few weeks ago, I went into my son Chase’s class for tutoring. I’d emailed his teacher one evening and said, “Chase keeps telling me that this stuff you’re sending home is math, but I’m not sure I believe him. Help, please.” She emailed right back and said, “No problem! I can tutor Chase after school any time.” And I said, “No, not him. Me. He gets it. Help me.”
And that’s how I ended up standing at a chalkboard in an empty Grade 5 classroom while Chase’s teacher sat behind me, using a soothing voice to try to help me understand the “new way we teach long division.” Luckily, I didn’t have to unlearn much because I’d never really understood the old way. It took me a solid hour to complete one problem, but I could tell that Chase’s teacher liked me anyway. She used to work with NASA, so obviously we have a whole lot in common.
Afterwards, we sat for a few minutes and talked about teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility it is. She and I agreed that subjects like math and reading are not the most important things that are learned in a classroom. We talked about shaping little hearts to become contributors to a larger community and our mutual dream that those communities might be made up of individuals who are kind and brave above all.
And then she told me this.
A few times a year, she asks her students to write on a piece of paper the names of four children with whom they’d like to be teamed up the following semester. The children know that these requests may or may not be honoured. Every Friday, she also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her. And after each ballot, when the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns.
Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
Who can’t think of anyone to request?
Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down-right away-who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea, I stared at her. “How long have you been using this classroom citizen system?” I said.
Ever since Columbine, she said. Every Friday afternoon since Columbine.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all brutality begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. She watched that tragedy knowing children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.
And so she started fighting violence early and often in the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11-year-old hands is saving lives. I am convinced of it.
And what this mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything-even love and belonging-has a pattern. She finds the patterns, and through those lists she breaks the codes of disconnection. Then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her.
Chase’s teacher retired this year. What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day, and altering the trajectory of our world.