She sat at the table with her head down. Her dark greasy hair covered the sides of her face as she slowly picked at the remains of purple nail polish on her nails. She was in my office again and I was the assistant principal of the middle school. This young lady had been asked to leave classrooms many times over three years for a variety of infractions. Mary (not her real name) had a reputation for being disrespectful, insubordinate and rude to adults in the school.
There had been endless meetings about her aberrant behavior with her mother, her social worker, her teachers, myself and the school principal. Behavior plans did not change her constant screaming at teachers and telling them where they could go. The school professionals had tried everything in their bag of tricks, but nothing altered her nasty verbalizations, especially in academic classes.
This girl had no extramural interests in school and did not participate in sports, music, drama or clubs available to her either during school or after school. She had no real friends at school. Students admitted that they were afraid of her. Our school needed a solution to engage this young lady and instill in her a desire to learn.
Mary was missing instruction in her classes needed to acquire the foundational skills to be successful within a regular high school curriculum. She had been placed in a small class for the majority of the day and she participated in regular classes when her behavior was appropriate. The problem was her behavior was becoming less suitable each day. She was spending more time in my office. One day, I decided to interview her as if she was a new entrant to our school. I recorded the interview for her mother and our principal to hear so we could continue our search to quell her outbursts.
Me: “What do you for fun?”
Mary: “Nothing.” Then, after a minute she said…”I like to read.”
Me: “What do you like to read?”
Mary: “Stories about old times and girls with problems.”
Me: “What classes in school do you like?”
Mary: “All my classes here are dumb.”
Me: “What do you mean dumb?”
Mary: “The teachers give me baby work.”
Me: “Tell me the name of a book you are reading at home.”
Mary: “The Bell Jar.”
Me: “Really? That is an adult book. Do you understand it ?”
Mary: “My mother had it. I like to read her books.”
Me: “I am thinking of trying you in some harder classes. Interested?”
Me: “Would you be willing to try some different classes tomorrow to see if you like them?
Pretend you are a new student just starting school here.”
Mary: “What are they reading in English?”
Me: “I don’t know but you might like the books this year.”
Mary: “They might think I am stupid.”
Me: “You mean the teachers or the students? They don’t know you so depending on how you act, it could be great fun. Let’s give it a try.”
With help from the guidance counselor and permission of her mother, we selected the most challenging classes in English, Science, Social Studies and Math. When Mary came into school the next day, she came to my office and I presented her with a new schedule. I walked her to her first class that day and asked her to be patient and give the new classes a try for a month to become accustomed to the teacher’s style and the material. I told her I would check on her midday and at the end of each day.
The first day with her new schedule she remained in her classes. In the middle of the day she said she was doing fine. At the end of the day she had a bunch of new books and a smile. At the end of the week, she had not been sent to my office once. Her comment to me after two weeks was that she was finally in the “smart classes.” Mary’s mother came to school and cried. She said finally someone recognized that her daughter was intelligent. Putting Mary into classes where the teacher challenged her intelligence and the students themselves modeled good behavior was a “brilliant solution.”
Mary thrived that year and was no longer a discipline nightmare. The lesson for the adults was, “Adjust the environment and sometimes there is a change in human behavior.”