“Amber’s Story”

I want to tell you a story that illustrates the importance and power of connecting of a student "on their level."  I've referred to this earlier as "surrendering the one-up relationship." 

This story is important because it points out that when you find the courage and creativity to do something just a little bit different and truly connect with one of your challenging students, you can create small wonders.

Amber's Story

I was working at a special school for students with emotional problems. Amber was a girl in one of my classes; she was in my classroom for four hours per day. She had been at that special school for years and I was new there. Amber was of normal intelligence, but she was sent to that school because she refused to talk at school – ever.

Refusing to talk appeared to be one of the many layers of protection Amber used to shield herself from everyone. Another was a heavy coat that she always wore, every day, even on warm spring days. She had a stealthy quality to her, and she often had a scowl on her face, as if she was in on some bad news the rest of us hadn't heard yet.

But her most noteworthy trait was that she simply wouldn't talk. Ever.

Her doctors called her condition "selective mutism," something her previous teachers tried to solve with a "full court press" that got them nowhere.

From Day 1, I got an earful of "just get tough with Amber" advice. I heard things like, "You need to MAKE her talk." The more I listened to their advice, the more it all sounded like they were focused on one single thing: How can we "push" Amber into talking?

I decided to take a different approach. Before I was even trained in the art of surrendering the one-up relationship, I decided to NOT do some things.

       I did not try to psychoanalyze Amber. (There were plenty of medical doctors around to do that already.)

       I did not frown with disapproval over her silence. (That obviously hadn't been working either.)

       I decided not to make her feel different for not talking.

So what did I do?

Well, for starters, I simply decided to accept her where she was. I made her feel just as welcome in the class as everyone else. And here was the key – I didn't take that approach as any sort of "agenda" or "strategy." I wasn't just being nice to her so that I could later corner her into a heart-to-heart talk about the silence.

I simply treated her nicely, with respect, like she was any other student.

It would have been nice if this worked overnight, but trust is sort of like Rome: you can't build it in a day. It took a long time for Amber to see that I was for real, that I wasn't going to engage her in an emotional tug-of-war.

My work didn't stop there. As I've already pointed out, nothing you try with your students will work without a solid personal connection.

So how could I connect with a child who wouldn't even talk?

Well, for one thing, I paid closer attention to what was important to Amber. I noticed small things and filed them away in my head.

It didn't take long to find a few things. For one thing, it was obvious that fairness was important to Amber. If someone cheated at a game, she would steal the ball until they stopped cheating. I also discovered that Amber had great hand-eye coordination. She could really excel at games like badminton and volleyball.

So, with this new information in hand, I waited for the right time to take my chance with Amber. Since she frowned continuously during social studies, I decided that would be my best opportunity to try something different.

Here's what I did . . .

I created a "Get Out of Jail" card and walked up to her during social studies with two old tennis rackets and said, "Amber, you can go into social studies or take a break with me right now, it's your choice."

(Logistical sidebar: I had cleared this with my team teacher before class so that my departure for a little while wouldn't interrupt the rest of the class. Yes, I know that not every teacher reading this would be able to pull off this exact maneuver, but don't miss the larger point of getting creative and finding a way "in" to your most challenging students.)

And, by the way, the simple phrase of "It's your choice" is the basis of many of my directions in the classroom.  It's also one of the fundamentals that makes the techniques in my teacher training package work so well.  I can't tell you how many teachers and parents write me to tell me that using my "It's your choice" strategy completely eliminates arguments and instantly teaches kids personal responsibility.  It has an irrefutable logic that kids buy into right away.

Within a few minutes, Amber and I were slamming a tennis ball back and forth on an empty playground. We must have been quite a sight that day: a teacher in a polo shirt and dress pants batting around a tennis ball with a tall, serious-looking girl in a heavy overcoat.

There was no net. Neither of us talked. (I made sure that we stood far enough apart so that she wouldn't feel any pressure to talk.)

We simply volleyed the ball until one of us hit it over the other's head . . .and then commenced whacking all over again once we retrieved the errant ball.

As I did this with Amber for about a month, we developed our own communication system. When she wanted me to hit the ball, she would frown and touch her racket to the ground. When she'd had enough and wanted to stop, she would just whack the ball so hard that it would sail into the neighbor's yard across the street.

At staff meetings every week I asked the other teachers the same question: "Does anyone have any extra tennis balls?"

After a couple months, a student who rode Amber's school bus brought a weapon to school. And that morning before first period, Amber marched right up to me and let 12 words fly out of her mouth and into my memory forever.

"Aaron has a gun," she said. "He showed it to me on the bus."

All I could think was: "Amber, not a bad time to start talking!"

My mind was spinning with the news flash, and my heart was pounding with the miracle of Amber's new-found voice, but all I said was, "Thanks Amber, I'll take care of it," as if hearing her voice was the most ordinary thing in the world.

As the year wound down, Amber started participating in a girls' group and the group leader told me that Amber talked in the group a lot. And we still went out there and whacked those tennis balls.

Now, I can't tell you precisely how much impact I had on Amber. I think the work we do as teachers is a lot like time-release tablets. We don't always see the real, lasting impact we make on our students.

But I have to feel that my decision to respect Amber and give her "her space" had something to do with her breakthrough that year. I'm happy to report that Amber graduated high school and moved on to give, quite literally, full voice to her future.

I will be the first to admit that what I did back then was not much more than an accident based on my raw instincts and a willingness to try something different.

Of course, now that I have repeated this kind of process over the years with countless other students, and now that these techniques have been validated by teachers all over the world, I can safely say that creating connections and "surrendering the one-up" aren't just random "home runs" but universal principles any teacher should follow.

Following these principles, by the way, is not a difficult or complicated task.  Since they utilize common sense techniques based on universal principles of human interaction, they come quite naturally, letting students gravitate toward what you want easily without them knowing you're trying to do anything at all.