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Don’t Take the Bait*

Date: February 7th, 2013
By: Polly Bath

I watched a colleague make four mistakes in a row. It was a painful way to start a Monday.

I was between meetings, coming out of my office at the end of the hall just as Miss Hardy six doors down exited her American History classroom.

I knew she was headed to the faculty lounge because it was 11 a.m. Every day she grabbed a yogurt and caught up on her grading. I’d been working at Truman High for three years as a Special Education teacher, specializing in behavior, and I knew all the teachers. I made a point of it.

I also made a point of making contact with as many students as I could every day, whether I knew them or not. I’d learned that knowing everybody made things a lot easier when push came to shove. Actually, sometimes just knowing everybody helped push NOT come to shove. That’s the way it is when you specialize in behavior—you learn that relationships matter when it comes to getting the job done. The job? Helping adults help students make better choices. Simple. Not easy.

And talk about a student who needed help with her choices: here was sixteen-year-old Sylvie, strolling down the hallway long after the bell, in her oversized black sweater, tight little black skirt, lime neon tights, and short turquoise boots. Roaming the halls was a chronic thing with Sylvie, a girl who didn’t let school interrupt her social agenda.

“Where are you supposed to be?” Miss Hardy asked.

Oh boy, I thought, that’s a mistake. With a kid like Sylvie, I never ask questions. Why? Because nine times out of nine the answer is just going to make matters worse.

Sure enough.

“Where am I supposed to be?” Sylvie mocked in a little sing-song voice. “Well…,” putting a finger on her chin and looking at the ceiling, “Wherever I want to be!” And off she went, flicking her long, straight blonde hair behind her like an exclamation point. “And why don’t you just mind your own business!”


That even took my breath away and I am a veteran of students with sass. I saw the blood rise in Miss Hardy’s face.

“What is your name!” Miss Hardy called after Sylvie, in a volume that was no longer her usual measured tone.

Oh no, I thought, don’t go there Miss Hardy. Don’t go there. This girl enjoys her confrontations with adults who try to correct her. If you let your emotional temperature rise you will be no match for her.

Meanwhile Sylvie tossed back as she kept on walking,”What’s it to you?”

Mistake number four was when Miss Hardy hustled down the hall after Sylvie, just as mad as she could be. I wanted to call out to her, “Stop! Whatever you do, stop taking the bait!”

Because that’s what she was doing, this excellent and well-intentioned teacher. She was taking the bait clearly dangled in front of her by a true master of the baited hook: our young Miss Sylvie.

Anyway, if you’ve ever tried to catch a wild rabbit, you can picture what Miss Hardy and Sylvie began to look like. Miss Hardy, in her navy wool skirt and matching blazer sped up and Sylvie, glancing back, moved faster.

I wanted to assist my colleague. I didn’t want to undermine her. Nevertheless, I could see an all out chase was about to begin. So I walked out into the middle of the hall.

Sylvie stopped.

Sylvie and I knew each other.

“Oh, Miss Hardy,” I said. “I’ve been looking all over for Sylvie.” Now there was no truth to this, but I had to corral Sylvie and help Miss Hardy maintain her dignity. “Do you mind if I interrupt? I’ll make sure Sylvie catches up with you later.”

Miss Hardy looked relieved, and Sylvie, who knew she’d been caught in the act, followed me back to my room.

Sylvie was held accountable. The next day she stayed after school for Miss Hardy. By then Sylvie was calm and owned up to her behavior. Miss Hardy was also better able to have some perspective on the situation. They had a nice talk.

When I had Sylvie in my office, I’d given her some advice. “I can help you learn how to participate productively in conflict, but until then, do not respond verbally at all in these kinds of situations, because you always get yourself into trouble. Also, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by following the rules—like not wandering the halls.”

What I wanted to say to Miss Hardy was this: “It’s hard when a kid is rude to your face. And it’s very hard not to get mad. But that just escalates it. The good news is that it’s actually possible to keep your cool in such situations. When you do that, you make good decisions about bad behavior.”

I couldn’t blame my colleague for following her instincts with this student. But Miss Hardy let her emotions get the better of her. Next month I’ll write about how I avoid losing my temper and getting into power struggles with students. No matter how rude they get. There’s a better way for Miss Hardy. One she’ll like better.

The late Dr. Mike Mezzocchi, behavior expert extraordinaire, was my mentor and colleague. He had a cartoon drawing of a fish looking at a baited hook. On the top it said, “Don’t Take the Bait.” Mike passed copies of this cartoon out to the thousands of teachers who came to his wildly popular behavior workshops around New England. “Don’t be this fish,” he’d say. “Don’t take the bait.” Then, comic that he was, he’d hook his forefinger in the side of his mouth and drag himself across the room. His point was that that was how much dignity and power we had left after we’d taken the bait from a student who was trolling. It was his first rule for teachers dealing with difficult kids. It’s been six years since he passed and I miss Mike still. Always will. Are you a Mike Mezzocchi alum like me? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at [email protected]


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.