Fighting Student Becomes a Social and Academic Success
by Joe DeRisi
Upon entering my third year of teaching in Newark, New Jersey, I was faced with different obstacles compared to the two previous years. Instead of having between 13-18 students, I was now faced with a class of 25. This was a little frustrating to me going into the new school year, but at least I had a teacher’s aide.
As the first day of school rolled around, I was excited but a little wary of what the year was to hold. After getting my new students situated, I realized that one of them, a student I will just call John, had been placed in my class the year before along with 3 others during the Halloween festivities because their teacher did not celebrate due to religious reasons. (All of her students were placed with other teachers, and she was given the ones who also didn’t celebrate.)
I remembered that John had gotten into a fist fight right in front of me in my classroom while the students were lining up for the Halloween parade. I realized this student was now my responsibility along with 24 others, and I was concerned.
As the year went on, John regularly got into fights with the other students. He always made it seem that the other students were the ones to blame. I knew better. We had numerous classroom meetings, and John was sent to the guidance counselor on so many occasions. None of this helped; I was at my breaking point.
It was a day in December, and the students were in the cafeteria for lunch. After I brought them back to the classroom, it was just one complaint after another about what John had done at lunchtime. After hearing all of this, I had John stand up and face the class. I asked the students to raise their hands if they ever had a problem with John hitting them, calling them names or pushing them. It was a unanimous raise of the hands.
After I saw this, I had students stand up one at a time and tell the class what John has done to them this year. All the while I had John standing in front of the classroom facing the students. Well, needless to say, by the 7th or 8th student, John was crying. I told him that even though he was upset, we were not stopping because everyone needed to get out what they had to say. After the 24th child spoke, I went up to John who was still crying, and I asked him what he was feeling. He stated that he didn't know that the class felt this way. I then asked John to sit down. After he dried his eyes, I asked the class a different question: “If John didn't do these things to you, would you like to be his friend?” Again there was a unanimous raise of the hands.
After John saw this, he smiled and apologized to the class. I stopped him and said that if he were going to apologize, he had to really mean it. I told him the way that we can all be sure that he would stop his ways would be to shake hands with everyone in the class and apologize to them directly by looking into their eyes. So one by one John shook their hands and apologized.
After this, John had minor mishaps but for the most part didn't really get into fights. He also became one of my best students academically. As the rest of the school year went on, I always made sure to acknowledge anything that John did that was helpful to myself or someone else. I could tell that he loved this so much because as I would tell the other students, his face would light up. I told him that I always knew he had it in him but that his old behavior had been ruining his reputation. I asked him if he wanted me to remember him as a good student or a disrespectful one. He told me that he would continue to be a good student.
As a result of what happened with John, my classroom management just fell into place. After other disruptive students, who were John’s friends, realized that he was behaving and getting praised, they fell in line as well. I’m not saying that they were little angels the rest of the year, but they just made a complete 360.
I felt it was very important for my students to have learning centers. They knew that the only way that they were going to get to go to centers was if they cooperated with one another. There were times when I had to cancel centers for the day because they were either too loud or disruptive. By the next day, they would beg me to get to those centers.
As a result of getting my classroom management into place and dealing with John and other disruptive students right away, I was able to get accomplished so much more than what I had thought possible.
As the year came to a close, I told John that I would miss him and would check up on him the following year when he was in the 3rd grade. He told me that I was his favorite teacher, and he was so glad that he had been in my class.
To this day I don't know how I was able to pull this off. I was just so relieved that I was able to help this child out and, as a result, the rest of my class. I must state that John came to visit me after school the following year at least once a week to show me his test scores and report cards.
Helping Second Graders Improve Their Behavior by Requiring Acts of Kindness
Three second graders were constantly misbehaving, and all of his efforts to help them improve were failing. They each had collected 200 points for poor behavior in a system he had devised to try to get them to improve, but it did not work.
He then hit upon a new approach. He knew that these boys would want to be part of the end of the year Field Day festivities at his school. He told them that to participate in Field Day, they had to get rid of the points by then. They could do this through kind acts or telling him of someone else who did something kind. Children in the class could also tell Mr. DeRisi of any kind acts that they saw these 3 boys doing.
At first, the boys did not like the idea of other students reporting to him about their behavior because they said it was “tattling,” but when he explained to them that children would be reporting good things they had done and that this would help get rid of the 200 points, they agreed to cooperate.
It took about 6 weeks for the 200 points to be removed. The boys’ behavior drastically improved, life in the classroom became more positive, and they got to participate in Field Day.
The Hall of Shame
(Here is an approach that most teachers would not take to stop bullying in their classrooms, but when Mr. DeRisi was not helped by his school administration to solve a serious problem, he got desperate to create a safe and supportive classroom and took an unusual step to end bullying.)
We have all heard of halls of fame, but have you heard of a “Hall of Shame?”
Mr. DeRisi was at his wits end once again. No matter what he did, six girls and three boys continued bullying – making fun of other students and spreading rumors about them.
He finally came up with the idea of a “Hall of Shame.” He put photos of the nine children on the outside door of his classroom that faced the hallway. Over the children’s faces, he had written: “Please do not talk to me because I will be mean and make fun of you.”
Students had written essays on how they had been harassed by the nine, and they read them to the class so that everyone was aware of what was happening. The victims’ voices were heard. In Mr. DeRisi’s words, “This was also helpful because it shined a light on the bullies and made them feel really badly about what their peers were saying about them.”
He explained to his class that the students’ photos would stay up until they could demonstrate that they were being more caring and helpful to others. When a student’s behavior had clearly changed, he would call a class meeting to ask if it was time to take his or her photo down.
“I kept the students’ essays in a folder and I communicated what I was doing with the nine students’ parents and why. Once I showed them the children’s essays, all were O.K. with the consequence except one parent. However, this parent did ask her daughter about the charges who then confessed to bothering other children. Needless to say, that was the end of teasing by this student.”
Over the course of two months, the pictures came down until there were none left. From then on, there weren’t any more bullying problems in Mr.