One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop Bullying

Here's how one schoolteacher takes time each week to look out for the lonely.

teacher's desk applesDan Winters for Reader’s Digest

A few weeks ago, I went into my son Chase’s class for 
tutoring. I’d e-mailed Chase’s 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 
e-mailed right back and said, “No problem! I can tutor Chase after school anytime.” 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 fifth-grade 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 for me, I didn’t 
have to unlearn much because I’d never really understood 
the “old way we taught long division.” 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.

Afterward, we sat for a few minutes and talked about 
teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility 
it is. We 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 we discussed 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.

Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. 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 every single Friday afternoon, after 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 a teacher, parent, and lover of all children, I think this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever 
encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see 
beneath the surface 
of things and into the hearts of students. 
It is like mining for gold—the gold being those children who need a little help, who need adults to step in and teach them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to 
join a group, or how to share their gifts. And it’s a bully deterrent 
because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside her eyeshot and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But, as she said, the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets 
of paper.

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As Chase’s teacher explained 
this simple, ingenious idea, I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said.

Ever since Columbine, she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine. Good Lord.

This brilliant woman watched 
Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.

And so she decided to start 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, even 
belonging—has a pattern to it. 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. It’s math.

All is love—even math. Amazing.

Chase’s teacher retires 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.

Glennon Doyle Melton writes the popular blog momastery.com and is the author of Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

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41 thoughts on “One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop Bullying

  1. What a wonderful thing to do..this is what seperates the teacher that wants to bring a change to community and the teachers that just teaches for the sake of being paid.

  2. I’m overwhelmed with this blog post. I hope she shares what she does with the other teachers in her school before she retires. To me, this is who we honor in this world – not reality TV stars, but REAL stars. She’s the real deal and the change agent in the world.

  3. The greatest bullying, unfortunately, comes at the High school level. These are young adults, almost on the cusp of legal adulthood, but with the impulses and self control of children. Bullied kids want to lash out because they feel no one cares about them. If you have EVER walked the halls in terror, in fear that a gang of kids would beat you up and either put you head first into a garbage can or lock you into a locker or steal your book bag and throw it into the dumpster, then you understand where the rage comes from. But schools are lazy for the most part. They treat EVERYONE equally. If a bully beats a victim, BOTH are punished equally, both accused of ‘fighting’. Its this type of stupid lack of common sense that drives the disenfranchisement. School are supposed to provide a SAFE learning environment. That includes not TOLERATING bullying, even if it comes from the so called ‘popular kids’.

  4. What an intelligent and compassionate professional! A child often looks for affirmation and guidance in the eyes of a trusted adult and, if met with reflected love and acceptance, the child will then internalize qualities like happiness, self-respect, and courage When sustained, these qualities enable a child to face down fears and to jump life’s future hurtles. A lot is being done in schools, now, to deal with bullying. But there’s another not-quite-so-publicized problem in our schools. It’s vital, I believe, for schools to initiate counseling programs for children of incarcerated adults. These students feel very alienated from the “normal” family. But, they need to know that other students in school suffer the same fears, shame, and sadness that they do. They are not alone. But, they probably think they are.Where is the help for them?

  5. My sixth grade teacher asked me to ask a shy girl to have lunch with me and my friends one day. She had transferred from another girl at the beginning of the year and had no friends. I hadn’t noticed how alone she was. We made friends that day and are still friends today. I credit my teacher for it. It was so easy to ask her to sit with us and made such a big difference in her life. Mrs. McMurdy- you were a great teacher!

  6. I wish more teachers were like this. So many are interested in just repeating what is in the text books until kids have it memorized, and not all children learn that way. What a wonderful teacher, and human being.

  7. A nice approach. When picking teams in school I always picked the one who was usually picked last. We all have feelings.

  8. It’s unbelievable that in this day and age more is not being done to improve the lives of thousands upon thousands of students in our elementary schools.

  9. Love this. It is so important for educators to recognize the “lost” children. I am sure she found a waynto reach out to them.

  10. Man i would of benefited from this, I was the kid who was there. i was not liked or disliked. It just taught me to be more proactive and to try harder for the things i wanted. It was tough friend wise from 7th grade to Sophomore in High school. I remember my Junior year a few kids came to me and said “when did you come back to this school”? Even though i never left. One kid a few years ago, was telling me how different would my life would of been if i “they” gave me a chance. I had the same “name brand” clothes. Had the hottest new gadgets and i knew what was in and not. Still none of this mattered, then sadly i drifted and fell in w/ the bad crowd. I was quickly accepted. I knew this was bad but i was starved for contact w/ peers especially the contact of the opposite sex. All in all i wish my teachers took a interest like this teacher did. The only kids that got that treatment were students of past alumni’s and the cliche sport students. I remember my freshman year kids on the basketball team were getting free answers from the science teacher. (He was the coach). I tried and he said “these kids spend alot of time practicing”: (I had a job at the school, i worked at the cafeteria during dinner for the rich kids who lived on campus. i was working 20-24 hours a week and still keeping my grades passing. He knew this…..Years later i was working at Dunkin Donuts while going to college and he came through and said “i knew you would be working here”. It felt like someone grabbed my heart strings and plucked all of them.

    1. Why you let yourself be so shaken by some low-life comment? He must be full of complexes of all kinds himself – as one in med. field I can tell you – just anyone has something he is not happy about himself/herself unless he/she is maniacal- shizo with idea of grandiosity… You are just too sensitive person that highly value other people opinions without selectivity of who’s opinion really matters… If you would just have a chance of the smallest glimpse in those people’s past or current private life you may even start to feel so much pity and sorrow for them and pride in yourself… Forget them! Live your life!

  11. Looking at all the questions, one that jumps out is anyone who can’t come up with anyone to request. That indicates a possible bullying victim and who has a fear of rejection. Also, someone who had a million friends last week and none this week could be a new victim of female bullying.

  12. Heaven forbid our little snowflake gets made fun of. We NEED to divert all our best minds to work on this problem NOW!

    She worked at NASA?? What NASA elementary school??

  13. This is why you should be concerned about the NSA “only” collecting Metadata. That’s what she’s doing here.

  14. Sure would have loved to have had even one teacher like this.

  15. I almost missed reading the story of this wonderful teacher because of the ads that swooped in and covered the entire article a moment after I began reading it. Readers Digest, take this hint. Place your ads where they will not be so offensive. Becasue offensive deliveries of ads make us block using those advertisers.

  16. Note to Reader’s Digest. I tried to print a hard copy of this article; only the first page printed. Can you please remedy this. I’d like to share it with teachers I know even if I don’t know their email address.

  17. When I read this, I went back to my 8 year old bullied self and wished this great lady was there. How much different I think my life would have been as I believe I never got over that experience. There are many really good teachers, but perhaps to be great takes a rocket scientist.

    1. Not a rocket scientist, just someone who’s experienced the same thing. I never ‘looked right’ and was depressed and lonely at that time in my life. Teachers treated me as if I was a problem. Home life was neglectful. I did learn to ‘get over it’ and hold my head up. You have to in order to fit in. You can’t appear weak and beaten. When I grew up and landed in front of a 3rd grade class, my instincts told me, This isn’t happening in my class, even a class for just one day – not on my watch.’ I won’t be like the teachers I had. At least, nowadays, there’s lots of discussion on how to stop the bullying.

  18. When I substitute taught a third-grade class once, I immediately noticed a boy who ‘didn’t look right.’, the clothes, the hair, the slouch. His name was Charles. He looked like I used to look, so I knew what was inside. When break came around, I called out to Charlie, ‘Hey, Charlie, I need help erasing the board.” Then outside, “Hey, Charlie, can you help me line up the tricycles.” Later, “Hey, Charlie, I need help getting them back in order.” This went on for the rest of the day. Anytime I needed help (and I tried really hard to come up with something, anything), I called on Charlie. By the end of the day when all the kids were leaving, Charlie came up to me and started talking a mile a minute about the scrape on his arm, his freckles, a bump on his knee. He was so happy to have someone pay attention to him in a positive way and recognize him. That was my last day in that classroom, and I still wonder what happened to Charlie. I was sorry I couldn’t be there for him the next day and the day after and the day after.

  19. Great idea, and I get it how she can figure out who is lonely and disconnected. But how do you figure out who is doing the bullying from this?

      1. No one wants to sit with the bullies? OK, but that could also just mean a lonely, unpopular kid. I guess if a kid keeps asking to sit near someone but that someone isn’t reciprocating.

        1. You are correct Paul. That is why it takes a rocket scientist to observe the difference between the two. Or, a great and caring teacher.

          1. Studies have shown that popularity increases exponentially when a person is a bully.

            Therefore the most popular person is also more likely to be a bully.

        2. it would probably give you something to go on. like say, johnny didn’t get picked by anyone- so i’ll closely watch johnny, or maybe ask in private if there’s anything troubling him.

      2. I was unpopular as a child, and always sat alone in the cafeteria and on the playground. But I never bullied anyone.

        So, no one wants to sit next to the bullies OR the unpopular kids. How does she use this information to winnow out the bullies?

        1. I’d guess observation of their behavior elsewhere and other patterns she might’ve noticed. Almost all bullies are bullied themselves, either at home or at school. This is coming from a former bullying victim who got a real, heartfelt apology from one of her former tormentors later in life, and someone who did a bit of bullying herself out of sheer loneliness, bile, and desperation for human contact.

      3. When I was being bullied in school it was the popular girls. I also was harassed by guys and if I complained it was my fault.

  20. As a parent of a child who’s not doing great socially, this made me tear up a little.

  21. This is a fabulous strategy. Our schools are social institutions where students are not only learning academic elements but also the social elements that will take them into adulthood. Their social and emotional learning is just as important as their academic learning.

    1. You definitely hit the “nail on the head”, as the saying goes! You’re absolutely and unequivocally RIGHT ON! I wish MORE people(s) would understand this great and important “concept!” We’d all sure be a whole lot “better off”, hopefully!!!

  22. And then she did what with the lists??? Would love to hear the rest of the story.

    1. Agreed, I too would love to know what she did with them. This a very compelling start, but not knowing how the lists were used leaves a big hole in this story.

      1. Sorry! I replied to the wrong comment and I guess you can only edit, not delete?

  23. What a great human being, connecting both math and love. This method would’ve definitely helped me through those early years of school, as I read it, I remembered how alone and scared I was. I hope this method gets disseminated through our educational process, helping people to save lives and the spirit of our children.

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