“I wonder if you could help?” a special education teacher asked me one day after school.
Some of my students, she told me, were bullying one of hers, always away from teachers, though—in the hallways and the lunch room and at the bus stop. She gave me their names. And she described her student Jared. He wore a headphones at school because noise made him frantic. He flapped his hands when emotion overtook him, and walked with a shuffling gait. Out of the sight of teachers, students mimicked him, mocked him, and tried to snatch his headphones from his head.
I drove home that evening, searching for an approach. I needed something more powerful than a scolding, I thought. But I went to bed that evening with no ideas.
The next morning, though, an idea began to coalesce.
I asked one of the bullies—the one with the most brawn, the loudest mouth, and the biggest swagger—to stop by after class.
“I need help,” I told Matt, “and I thought of you. Could you find two others to team up with you? Bring them to my room for lunch tomorrow, and I’ll explain.”
The next day over brown bag lunches, I told Matt and his friends that I was looking for help with Jared. They became watchful, uncertain where I was going with this. I talked about how I could tell they had influence with other students, and then I showed them a video clip about kids like Jared. While they watched the video, I watched their faces change.
“I wonder,” I said when the video ended, “if you three could help change Jared’s life here at school. Could you help other kids understand about him? Could you keep the lunchroom safe for Jared?”
They looked at each other. Then they looked at me.
“We’ve got it, Mrs. Swartz,” Matt told me. “You don’t need to worry about Jared anymore.”
Matt kept his promise. For the rest of the year, Jared was safe when Matt was around. And he was usually around.
I have no illusion that this outcome always works. I tried this for the first time in my last year of teaching.
But, given the chance, I would try it again.