“How to Create Teaching Miracles by Teaching Outside the Box”

 If you're having problems with a student, ask yourself, "I wonder if there is a solution to be found by finding his or her level and understanding things in his or her world?"

Notice I didn't say, "What can I assign this child?" or, "How can I get this child to do X, Y or Z?"

Let me tell you a heart-warming story that illustrates my point. It centers on a kindergarten student, but the essential lesson can be applied to students at ALL grade levels.

"Eddie's Story"

Eddie was a big kindergartener. He wasn't heavy-set; he was just stronger and bigger than the other kids. He reminded me of the character "Shrek," and I even gave him that nickname when I found out he liked the sound of it.

Eddie was always in trouble at school. Basically, he had four problems:

1. He was in trouble during circle time on the rug where he would jostle with other kids.

2. He would not stand up for the "Pledge of Allegiance."

3. He would push the other boys in line.

4. He would fight on the bus.

So I decided to enter Eddie's school environment in a very real way.  At the time, I was working in this particular district as a behavior specialist.  In this regard I was a stranger to the school, so I made it a point to connect with everyone on that campus "at their level."  In other words, I did not approach anyone from "on high" and instead surrendered the "one up relationship."

I also made sure I was a humble observer who treated everyone with respect. From the bus stop to the cafeteria, I followed the rules and expectations wherever I went.  My reason for taking this approach was simple. I knew the teachers and staff at this school would easily feel threatened that an outsider was coming in to correct a child's behavior they seemingly couldn't handle.

I simply watched Eddie for a few days. I played soccer with him at recess, and pushed him on the swings.

So What Did I Find Out?

After a few days, I realized that his only real problem was that he was just a big, burly five-year-old.

He had problems at carpet time because he did not fit on the carpet, and it was hard for him to sit in that position. So we arranged it so that he could sit in a small chair during carpet time. (We placed the chair at the edge of the rug so that he wouldn’t block anyone’s view.)

For the morning pledge, the teacher aide stood behind his chair and touched his back to quietly encourage him to stand.

While standing in line, he was doing what all the other boys were doing — pushing and shoving — but because he was bigger, all the other boys were falling down like dominoes. So we gave him the job of the "Safety Caboose," and he lined up last while the teacher aide walked next to him.

Now here's How I Went Outside the Box . . .

As for Eddie's problems on the bus, I did something truly "outside the box."

I got on the bus and rode with the kids myself.

My supervisor thought I was wasting my time, but like the old detective Columbo, I had some good reasons up my sleeve. The bus ride took 47 long minutes.

Here's what I discovered: Eddie would do fine for the first part of the ride, but then he had trouble sitting still.

After riding the bus for about 40 minutes, I looked out the window and I saw that our route had taken us back to our starting point.

I asked the driver, "Excuse me, but is there any way you can pick up Eddie last so that he is only on the bus for last seven minutes?"

She said, "Sure, I don't see why not."

Let's take a look at what really happened here . . .

My point in all this is not just that the ideas worked.

It's that  the ideas were created because  I was willing to get down to the student's level and simply WATCH what was going on.

When I was visiting in the classroom, I did what the kids did and listened to everything the teacher said.

I colored. I sang. I followed all the classroom rules. In the cafeteria, I raised my hand to be excused from the table. And I made sure that each staff member knew that I was not the boss.

I was there merely to look at the whole picture, and then provide ideas they could either use or not.

Even though my role as an outside specialist made it easier for me hang in the background and ponder creative solutions, you can perform the same sort of "big picture sleuthing" if you just give yourself a chance.

And I'm not just talking about kindergarten, either. This sort of detective "lab work" is invaluable at all grade levels.

You will amaze yourself when you immerse yourself in the lives of your students this way.

It allows you to look at your classroom with a cool detachment. When you do this, solutions will appear almost magically.

This subtle (but powerful) approach works wonders outside the classroom, too . . .

I took the same approach with Eddie's mother.

She was quite anxious over her boy's troubles. She felt like he was getting attacked on all sides, and she wanted to come to his rescue.

I started off by telling her about all the problems my mother had with me, and how Eddie was just a big brawny tyke, and how every high school in the area would probably be recruiting him 10 years from now for their sports programs. Like me, he didn't "fit into" kindergarten because he didn't fit into the provided spaces.

When I was in elementary school, we would get the reward of a movie three times a year.

It was a very big deal. One class would host the movie, and those kids would sit at their desks.

The rest of us had to wedge ourselves into that class and sit cross-legged on the floor. Because of my size and hyperactivity, I knew I was in for a long hour every time we had to visit another class.

I simply could not sit like that for more than 90 seconds before I started to squirm. I always got in trouble, which made me sad because I really wanted to see Jimminy the Cricket sing, "I'm no fool, no sir-eee, I wanted to live to be 103. I play it safe for you and me, 'cuz I'm no fool!"

Telling Eddie's mom that story was a classic case of me surrendering the one-up relationship, although she surely had no use for such fancy-pants jargon. Here was a woman who felt like she was paddling upstream as the only one fighting for her Eddie. And then she meets someone who cared enough to even ride the bus with her child, which causes her to think, "Wow, maybe there IS some hope. Here is this guy who has really been there and seems genuinely interested in finding exactly what we can do for MY child."

Things worked out fine for our little Shrek-meister. He began enjoying school more, and it showed on his face. The school staff rallied around his burgeoning efforts.

Sure, he still had his ups and downs, but by getting down to his level it became possible to stop "the blame game," and to work toward easy, common-sense solutions.

After all, a five-year-old is just a five-year-old, and we needed to accept him where he was at and work together for the common good.

How could you put this to work in your own classroom?  Well, one way is to "play detective" by observing your own classroom with the cool detachment of a lab scientist.  When you observe with detachment, you're able to see hidden dynamics you otherwise would have missed.

I call it the "Columbo" approach, after the old TV detective show.