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How to Change Someone’s Life with the Written Word

Tamela Lewis


For one year, I taught fifth grade. And one child stole my heart: Alex. As a fifth grader, Alex’s grades never exceeded a “D” or “F.” He was a consistent discipline problem; however, Alex had a sweet temperament and high energy, albeit a somewhat forlorn disposition.

Alex was not a “bad kid,” but he was a failing one.

The Right-Away First Conference

The first parent-teacher conference was scheduled soon after the school year was in progress. Before things got worse, it was time to address Alex’s failure to turn in his assignments. He also had to quit talking and disrupting class.

To the Principal’s Office We Go

Alex and I solemnly made our way to the principal’s office where Alex’s mom and the principal were waiting. After I reported the problems, Alex’s mother scolded him. I got the feeling she had been through this many times.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed she swayed in her chair and she had her glassy eyes.

As she scolded Alex, she slurred, blurted, slurred, blurted, “Alex, you better do what the teacher says or you will end up in prison just like your brothers.”

A Young Teacher–Very Naive, Mad, and Determined

In a stunned moment, I was face-to-face with my naiveté. Alex’s mother was obviously in orbit somewhere above the principal’s office. Alex’s tears wet his entire cheeks and through his sniffles and sobs, he promised to do better next time.

All I felt was sick to my stomach. I saw a normally animated, bright-eyed kid dissolve into a pitiful, pleading little boy, trying so hard to please—but totally and completely without the resources to do any better.

I left that office mad and determined. Alex couldn’t help Alex. Alex’s mother couldn’t help Alex. The principal couldn’t help Alex. So I would. I woke up in the middle of the night trying to figure out a strategy to help Alex.

I read books. I talked to other teachers. I offered to stay after school to tutor him. I tried everything, but only with marginal impact.

Notice the Good.  Catch Them Doing Things Right

Finally, the best untutored approach I could concoct was simply to notice the “good.” This was harder than it sounded. Alex did twenty wrong things to every right thing. I really had to pay attention to Alex and the more I did so, the more I noticed him doing what he was not supposed to be doing.

In order to “catch him doing something good,” I had to ignore twenty bad things. If he was supposed to be doing homework quietly at his desk, he was noisily rearranging his books. If he was supposed to be getting ready for lunch and putting his books away, he was talking and teasing someone.

The Quick Translation

failinggradeWhen I graded his papers, he would score a 30%. Since a 59% is an “F,” he wasn’t even close to a passing grade. As I stared at one more “F” paper, I wondered, “How do I make something positive out of a low F?”

In a moment of inspiration, I wrote with my red pen: “Plus 7!” and then in big letters for effect, I wrote “7 Correct Answers! Good job, Alex.” This was opposed to the normal “-70 F.” Same thing, said differently.

Tell Others About Their Successes (And Make Sure They Know You Told Them)

Finally, when I had enough “good things” collected, I wrote his mother a note and asked him to follow the standard practice: get her signature and bring it back to me. As many know, traditionally, notes sent home were never a good thing.


At the top of the note, I wrote: “You should be very proud of Alex. In the last two weeks, he has…and what followed was a long, very specific list of all the things Alex had done right in the last two weeks. I handed the folded note to Alex and watched him out of the corner of my eye, poised to celebrate my victory as soon as his face lit up.

My Brainstorm: The Note–Epic Failure?

He read it the note with zero expression, simply folding the note back up, stashing it in his pocket. I was crestfallen. All my hard work and attentiveness toward his good behavior had been for nothing. Unceremoniously, the next day he laid the folded note on my desk with his mother’s signature.

I was disappointed, but tried to act “normal.” We both acted as if nothing were different about this note than all the other notes he had taken home for a signature for years. I sighed to myself.

What? Epic Success!

Later that afternoon, one of girls who walked home along Alex’s route approached me and told me that on the “note day” Alex didn’t walk home; rather, he jumped and shouted home, waving the note up and down. He made everyone along the way read it.

My heart leapt. I had gotten through after all.

Say It in Writing

There seems to be something special about the written word. I heard of one CEO who kept a Brag Folder in his desk of all the nice things people had said about he and his leadership. When he was feeling down and discouraged, he would take it out and review it. It always lifted his spirits.

After my grandmother died, I found a note I had written to her describing all the reasons I loved her.

Particularly in today’s world, send someone a short note today–encourage, praise, acknowledge, notice–send some love.You’ll make a difference in their life.




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