Good Gal Without A Gun

  • Agree: “You’re right. Math is stupid.” Result: Devaluing an essential life skill and fundamental academic discipline.
  • Disagree: “Math doesn’t suck. It’s elegant and important.” Result: Devaluing the child’s feelings and increasing frustration.
  • Punish: “I don’t ever want to hear you say that word again!” Result: Anger and loss of credibility (for you as an effective teacher).
  • Problem-Solve: “I’ll show you how to do that.” Result: Math problem is completed, but attitude about math remains unchanged.
  • Empathy: “Math can be difficult” or “Numbers can be really confusing” or “You’re struggling to find a solution to that problem” or “It can take a while to derive an answer” or even “I can see you’re frustrated right now.” Result: Connection, leading to physiological calm, clearer cognition and enhanced ability (at this later point) to problem-solve. Attitude and approach to math may even become more positive.

Nobody thinks clearly—about math or anything else—when they’re angry and frustrated. Leading with empathy and kindness paves the way for change. Seeing the problem, whether it’s algebra or an armed gunman, is easy. Solving the problem is harder. And force isn’t always the answer.

In her 911 call, Ms. Tuff is overheard talking to the gunman: “It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. No, you don’t want that. You’re going to be OK.”

As police surrounded the school, the gunman surrendered, without harming anyone. How differently things might have ended if Tuff had rushed into her desk drawer and pulled out a gun.

 Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training, with a vision to become the world leader in online education for youth development professionals. Additional resources for camps, schools and families can be found on To book workshops or contact Chris directly, e-mail

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