One Teacher’s Most Important Lesson: How to Save a Life

In a common core world where teaching is sometimes more concerned with evaluating pupils’ aptitudes for test-taking than with evaluating their well-being, one teacher has developed an ingenious method of tracking her children’s thoughts and feelings, and possibly saving lives in the process.

lonely child

On Glennon Doyle Merton’s “Momastery” blog, she writes of her son’s math teacher, an unnamed, unsung hero. What makes her so? One afternoon, Merton dropped by her son’s fifth-grade classroom for help on how to better guide him with his homework, and she and his teacher got to talking. After some time they moved on from methods of long division to philosophies of teaching, both agreeing that “subjects like math and reading are the least important things that are learned in a classroom,” that we owe it to students to instill in them kindness, compassion, and bravery above all. And that’s when this teacher shared a secret method with Merton.

Every Friday without fail she asks students to write on a piece of paper the people they’d like to sit with for the following week. She also asks each one to nominate one individual to be recognized as the “exceptional classroom citizen” of that week. This may sound pretty ordinary, until you realize what she’s actually doing with these nominations. You see, once the children have left the building, this fifth-grade math teacher and former NASA employee scours her students’ nominations for patterns.

Who is not getting requested by anyone else?

Who doesn’t even know who to request?

Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?

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

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.

Amazed, Merton asked how long she’d been doing this for, to which the teacher replied, “Ever since Columbine. Every single afternoon since Columbine.”

Wow. That means that before Sandy Hook, before Newtown, before any of the other 22 school shootings that have taken place since April 20th, 1999, this teacher knew that “the source of outward violence is inner loneliness.” She knew of a way to spot the students suffering a disconnection and she knew how to fix it.

And what this mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything – even love, even belonging – has a pattern to it. And she finds those patterns through those lists – she breaks the codes of disconnection.


After a long career of working to ensure children’s safety and mental well-being, this inspirational teacher retires this year. It’s a good thing there are so many out there to carry the torch – we only need to spread the word to teach them how.

How do you or teachers you know inspire compassion in your students? What methods can you share that diminish a child’s isolation before it becomes a lasting problem? We’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment.