46: A Change in Strategy

46: A Change in Strategy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

A Change in Strategy

Compliments are like verbal sunshine.

~Steve Curtin

On the first day of school, Belinda stuck a pencil in Rory’s eye and called him a very bad word. That earned her a place in “time-out.”

“Time-out is like jail, Mistuh Buhsell,” she said, and she would know, as she had spent the majority of her time there that day. “You should call this jail.”

Belinda was right. From that time forward, when students misbehaved and ignored their first two warnings, they went to an isolated desk known as “jail.”

My first year of teaching was probably not too different from anyone else’s. I drew praise for my enthusiasm and hard work while secretly realizing I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. Belinda knew.

“Mistuh Buhsell, you too young to be a teacher,” she said on day two.

Belinda, like many of my students, had grown up “street smart,” with very little use for schools and books. She was easily the smallest person in my class, and many teachers had fallen into the trap of believing she was “too small and precious” to hurt anyone. They might as well have thought the same about a bumblebee.

“Jail” was not working, so I kept Belinda in at recess. I made her wash all the desks and pick up all the garbage lying around. That’ll teach her, I thought. Belinda, though, was smarter than me.

“I like cleanin’, Mistuh Buhsell,” she said. “Can I do this every day?”

On the third day, I caught Belinda fighting with José. I walked over to their table and asked what the problem was.

“She keeps calling me a bad word,” José said. Being the smart, idealistic new teacher, I asked José to whisper the bad word into my ear.

“She said I’m ‘stupid.’ ”

I was relieved to hear that at least Belinda had toned down her language. Baby steps toward improvement, I told myself. Belinda wrote standards after school while I gave her another lecture on behavior.

“Belinda, tomorrow is a new day,” I said. “Keep your head up and try your hardest and you’re bound to improve.”

The next day, I caught her fighting with José again. Exasperated, I shouted across the room to ask why they were fighting. Again, José accused Belinda of calling him a bad word.

“Stop calling José ‘stupid,’ ” I bellowed.

“I didn’t call him stupid, Mistuh Buhsell,” she yelled back. “I called him a (bleep)!”

That was it. Belinda had finally earned a call home. But Belinda informed me that her mama didn’t have a phone. She even smiled when she said it. Determined to win this battle, I told Belinda that I would walk her home after school and talk to her mother in person.

And for the first time all week, Belinda became silent.

The rest of the day, she sat still in her chair. Eerily still. At any moment, I anticipated she’d smack somebody or throw something across the room, but she just slouched in a trance, even with kids teasing her.

“It’s not going to work, young lady,” I told her. “You already earned a walk home, and behaving now isn’t going to change that.”

For the first time since I set eyes on her, Belinda was just a cute little girl sitting subdued in her seat. I sympathized, but “experts” advised that to survive as a teacher I had to stand firmly by my decisions.

When the final bell sounded, Belinda dashed for the door, but I reminded her of our appointment. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. I took her by the hand, and we began the two-block walk to her house. Along the way, I nervously pondered what to say to her mother. Here it was only four days into the school year, and I had lost control of a three-and-a-half-foot-tall seven-year-old.

Belinda took me through the gate to her yard, heavily littered with debris. I heard a big dog barking inside the house. Belinda went inside to get her mother while I waited on the porch like a struggling insurance salesman.

“Where you been, girl?” a nasty voice screamed. Babies cried loudly inside.

“My teachuh’s here,” Belinda said softly, and I still couldn’t see inside through the heavily barred front door.

“Hello,” a deep voice barked. I could barely make out the outline of a shadow behind the door.

“Uh, I’m Mr. Brassell, Belinda’s teacher.”

“What’d she do this time?”

I suddenly decided to try a different approach. “Well, I didn’t come to tell you what Belinda is doing wrong. I came to tell you what she is doing right.”

There was no response, so I continued.

“Belinda really likes to participate in class,” I said, searching for whatever true, positive comments I could find.

Still no response.

“Belinda is also always at school on time, and I wanted to thank you for that,” I said. “I really appreciate your support.”

The door opened, and a rather skinny, short woman smiled. She was in her thirties, but looked much older, with scars all over her arms and face. I finally caught a glimpse inside the cramped little house: there were empty 40-ounce malt liquor bottles, crumpled newspapers, and fresh “doggie deposits.”

“I’m Ms. Johnson,” she said, offering me her hand to shake. She practically blushed as she fidgeted with the curlers in her hair.

I smiled and described every positive thing that Belinda had done over the past week, from sitting quietly as she did her independent work to cleaning the room. I failed to mention that Belinda only sat quietly when I put her alone in “jail” or that she cleaned the room during recess as a punishment for bad behavior. It seemed that Ms. Johnson had heard those stories about her daughter too many times in the past.

“Well,” I concluded, “it was really nice to meet you, Ms. Johnson, and I hope you feel free to visit our classroom anytime.”

Now it was Ms. Johnson who was standing uncomfortably in the doorway.

“My Belinda’s helpin’ other students in her class,” I overheard Ms. Johnson yell to neighbors as I departed. “Her teacher says she’s really improving.”

The next day at school, Belinda gave my knees a big hug.

“My mama bought me a new backpack,” she said with a smile bigger than her tiny face could hold. “And she said she’d get me a new dolly if I get good grades in your class.”

“Are you going to try harder to get along with other people in here?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” Belinda said. “You the best teacher.”

That made me smile. I had completed my first week of teaching, and despite all of the questions I had in my head, one positive comment from a little seven-year-old made all the difference in the world to me.

~Danny Brassell

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