One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop Bullying

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

By Glennon Doyle Melton
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine June 2014

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 

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.

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 and is the author of Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

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  • Your Comments

    • Dewee Sofee

      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.

    • Elyse Salpeter

      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.

    • TSJones97

      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’.

    • IamBullyproofMusic

      Beautiful in spades.

    • Cumi

      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?

    • Jennifer

      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!

    • Anna McCoy

      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.

    • Benebeth

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