A Bully Transformed by Trust

Dennie Briggs teaches UC extension courses in education. He lives in San Pablo

The national agenda for education that President Clinton has set for his second term is as perturbing as it is tantalizing. He wants to expand Head Start; he wants all children to be able to read on their own by age 8, log onto the Internet by 12 and enroll in college at 18. His $2.75 billion plan calls for amassing reading specialists, helping parents who have poor reading skills and recruiting 11,000 Americorps personnel.

There are however, less costly and more readily available resources in every school. Let me cite a personal example that occurred a number of years ago.

At 9 a.m., the door to my classroom opened and 12-year-old Bill stood defiantly on the threshold of our portable classroom. After a sudden silence, all of the second- and third-graders busied themselves intensively.

The principal of the school in Southern California where I was substitute teaching had wondered if some of the older boys sent to her for disciplinary action might be able to help out in the classrooms. "Often they're just bored and so they torment the younger children," she had told me. I had agreed to take one boy as an experiment. But I didn't know that she would act this soon. Or that it would be Bill.

I had often seen him sitting outside the principal's office. He was tall, with curly brown hair and large blue eyes that looked at you with a directness disconcerting in a sixth-grader. He was known as a bully among the 800 children at the school.

Caught off guard, I merely introduced him as if his reputation didn't exist and said that he was going to help out in our classroom. I invited him to sit next to me.

Bill stayed all day. Intuitively, he seemed to understand what we were doing and pitched in to help the children with their studies. He stayed after class and we went over some of the things he might do.

He came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week, the two smallest boys asked if he could be their regular teacher. Reading and grammar, the two areas these boys wanted help with, had been difficult for Bill. So he had to enlist the aid of his older sister.

Bill remained after school each afternoon to have a "teacher's meeting" with me. He wanted to know how he was doing and any tips I could give him. One morning he appeared with a wooden case--his "learning kit"--which he'd made to carry his teaching materials.

All went well until his first crisis. Bill announced to his two students that he was taking them on a "learning walk." Equipped with his kit and a boy on each hand, they were off to look for nouns.

Half an hour later they returned, one of the boys crying, Bill tense and shaking. The boy had run off to play while Bill insisted they proceed with their lesson. Bill had caught him and given him a good cuffing. Bill, frightened by the smaller boy's reaction to his attempts at discipline, was on the verge of giving up teaching.

We role-played what had happened. The other children gave their views and suggested different ways Bill could have handled the situation. And then we role-played these fresh solutions while Bill and his students watched, now and then adding their ideas.

Other "problem boys" came to help our class. Our noon brown bag "teacher's seminar" soon numbered 12.

Bill never returned to his own class (much to the relief of his teacher). He'd become a mentor and role model for the others. He visited classrooms in neighboring schools to pick up new ideas to share in our teachers' seminar. And somehow he kept abreast of his own studies, took his finals and passed with high grades.

I recently saw a picture of the president being read to by two children. He ought to think of them as resources, not just expenses.

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