Breaking the codes of disconnection – One teacher’s strategy of trying to prevent school shootings

Opinion piece

Following the latest school shooting in Florida there has been lots of discussion on how authorities can pick up warning signs and stop such atrocities from happening. It turns out in this case and many of the others there were warning signs. President Trump has just recently announced he believes arming teachers with guns is the way forward, which is a strategy based on fear. What we need is a strategy based on love.

I saw a story shared on Facebook today and I really loved it. It told the story of a teacher and how she introduced a new tool into her classroom following the Columbine school shooting. The writer, Glennon Doyle Melton, was speaking to the teacher who teaches her son and recounts their conversation in the article.

Below is a direct quote;

“Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit with the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her.

And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.

Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

Who can’t think of anyone to request?

Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

Who had a million friends last week and none this week?

You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

This teacher is not looking to rearrange her classroom and choose a new seating plan for the children. She’s not looking for the most popular children or those that the other children admire. She is in fact looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the children who are more likely to fall through the cracks of the ‘class’s social life’. She is discovering who is going unnoticed by their peers.

A young person does not just develop challenging behaviour out of the blue, it is usually a symptom of something else going on in their lives. There are always patterns and if someone looks carefully they are always there. Someone does not just wake up one day and decide to murder their peers. There is usually a lot that takes them to this point.

What this teacher has learned from using this weekly system of feedback in the classroom, is that everything including things like love and belonging—has a pattern to it. She finds the patterns, and through those lists she breaks the codes of disconnection. Then she reaches out and helps ‘lonely’ or isolated children get the help they need. It’s a simple equation to her and I really believe it has the potential to make real change in that young person’s life.

The reason why something like this works well is because this teacher has real empathy and love for her students. I feel empathy is often missing is many of the traditional services that deal with young people with challenging behaviours. Many young people who come before the police and the judicial system, as well as the mental health services, experience minimal empathy by some of the professionals they come into contact with. They are treated as the problem (this is something I have experienced myself) therefore I really believe if there was real empathy and understanding shown to these young people or adults in the very early days, then things may have been very different.

I’m not saying that anyone should be expected to have empathy for someone who is a school shooter, or a murderer. But I do believe that people have to realise that this person may have had a serious events or experiences that have taken them to this place. And of course not every young person who struggles with their peers will go on to commit such crimes but I do believe that they may go on to struggle in different ways throughout their life, unnecessarily.

It’s also incredibly important that the right support services are available for young people to get the support they need when they need it, on any level. A teacher can only do so much but if the professional support services aren’t available for young people, their problems are left to fester and become magnified. However, if we have teachers and supports working in harmony together there is the potential for real change. It’s also important to acknowledge that teachers too need support, as many are under-resourced and working in stressful environments. The wellbeing of all in the school system is paramount.

I believe the simple tool outlined above and utilised by this teacher on a weekly basis has the potential for immense change in every school all around the world. Although this wonderful teacher started it in response to the tragic Columbine shooting, I feel it could create deeper awareness in the school culture to notice children who are struggling faster and get them the help they need.

I also believe that it is possible for schools to cultivate a culture of empathy and there are many great schools already working hard to create this as well as great organisations such as Roots of Empathy. I believe if people are shown empathy, love and understanding they may go on to be very different people and have many more positive experiences in their life.

More of this please.

You should definitely read the full article, it’s worth your while. You can read it here.

This article first appeared on Marie’s blog Unwind Your Mind

Marie Duffy
Marie Duffy
Proud Donegal woman and mental health advocate. She can be found on Twitter at @donegalabu and Marie’s blog is