One year, Narcissus was in my class, a self-identified Mean Girl. “I’m a mean girl,” he said. “I tell it like it is.”
Helping Narcissus learn compassion and how not to be the center of attention was challenging. He was funny, and kids laughed at his antics. But they also were weary and wary. Would he turn on them next?
Instead, he turned on me.
What happened was this: One day I called Narcissus in to discuss behavior. It did not turn out the way I planned. He was a fast talker, slick as wet pavement. He said, “You should know that I’ve taken a poll, and everyone agrees that YOU need to change YOUR behavior.” His head bobbed back and forth in that cool way kids have on T.V. when they’re being smarty with their t.v. parents. “Oh, yeah, baby.”
Then he pulled out a list, and a pile of letters. “All of these kids wrote letters.” He looked down at one. “This one says, — Oh. I can’t read that,” he smirked.”It’s private — watch your language, girl!” He shuffled papers. “This one says you’re too strict.” He dug another one out. “This one — ” he smiled to himself, looking it over, “you don’t EVEN want to know what this person says about you.”
I ignored the letters and patiently went over our class rules again, what it means to be a respectful member of our classroom community, and how he was being disrespectful with his constant talking, and ..yada yada yada. But inside I felt defeated. This savvy kid had defeated me. Again. My mind spun out into the painful places teaching has taken me at times. “Nothing will change,” the voice told me. “You can’t teach.” My mind went where it has often gone over the years: I shouldn’t be a teacher. I should just quit. This was too painful.
I thought about all the methods I had used to help manage his poor behavior and outbursts — the checklists I had given him that he simply would not check off when he was misbehaving. The moments stepping out of the classroom that brought only laughter and hoots from other students, and the focus of attention squarely where Narcissus wanted it to be. I really didn’t know what to do. And steely eyed as I tried to appear, I felt awful, like an awful teacher.
And then two things happened that saved my day — and saved my career:
Another teacher found one of the letters a student had written. “This is NOT acceptable,” she said. And she named the behavior: “This is bullying. He has no right to treat you this way. If he were treating a student this way, he would be suspended. And it is even worse to treat an adult with this kind of gossip and unkindness.” I was stunned. I was being bullied. It had never occurred to me. I felt embarrassed, but liberated at the same time, like a truth had been illuminated. I felt grateful that she had named the behavior.
Then the principal came in. She was stern. I was a little afraid. How had I lost such control of a situation? I was sure she would criticize me.
“You are doing everything right,” she said. “You are teaching really well. He has no right to treat you this way and he is in BIG trouble!”
I almost cried. At that moment, I realized that never, in any teaching job since my first one 25 years ago, had I seen a principal so fully support a teacher. I felt only gratitude.
Hearing such support, I felt completely empowered to seek new solutions. I saw Narcissus’s behavior as a challenge that could be solved with support, not as a sign of my own failure. It was an amazing feeling.
So the next day, I sought the help of the Speech and Language Pathologist. I didn’t know if she’d ever had a student who was hyperverbal and manipulative, or if Speech was meant to deal with such people at all. But I described to her the situation and what I had done to help him change his behavior so it did not disrupt class. And she pointed out that everything we had done so far with him was verbal reinforcement. It gave him the attention he craved. She suggested I use a nonverbal system to help him curb his behavior, and more importantly, that all the teachers use the same system with him in a consistent way. We began the next day.
The principal also modeled how she spoke with him: “I will speak now and you are to remain silent. Then it will be your turn to speak.” and then cut off the conversation. The result was beautiful. I did not tell him what we were doing that first day. I did not remind him of his behavior. I simply watched him and conducted my class, and ignore him, and at each misbehavior, I put a button in a jar. At the end of the day, he and I counted buttons. He had accumulated 64 buttons in one hour by getting up and walking around, calling out, interrupting other kids, throwing things in the air, and generally being disruptive in a way no other child was being in class. After we counted buttons, I asked him, in order to give him some sense of choice, how many buttons he felt he should reasonably expect to accumulate in an hour. 20, he said. The other teachers disagreed: 10, they said. the limit would be 10. After that, he would be on detention for disruptions. I also added, I know you like to get “rewarded” for good behavior. We will recognize that, too. If you do something great — not just something expected — you will get a button in another jar.
During our next class, his behavior was much better — down to 30 buttons. The next day, 27. The next 13. the next 7, and finally, one day, he had no negative buttons. Only two — in the positive jar, for sharing his wonderful writing.
Each day after that, he would come into my class to share something beautiful he had written — something positive, something life-affirming, something that showed the ways that a gregarious person can contribute to the world. Over time, he learned to curb his behavior and act more appropriately in class. As an adult, I am sure he will look back with gratitude on this small clipping of wings, as a time when someone finally found a way to say to him, “Enough.” and helped him learn to work with others in a healthier way.