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My heart transformation journey began unexpectedly at a drug and alcohol training seminar about nine years ago. Our school district had received a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar grant that centered around technical training for about thirty people. The training was designed to prepare us to implement prevention based programs that stressed a proactive approach to the drug and alcohol problem. Like others, I felt a resistance to this intensive, eight day commitment.

My life was changed by a girl from a peer leadership group at a high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. She sat in the front row. From her appearance, I thought she would be the strongest, most confident speaker - the All-American, Student Council President type. Two minutes into her sharing, she began to cry and shared with us her thanks to peer leadership members for saving her life. This group had helped her recover from her attempted suicide. That very day she spoke to us was the one year anniversary of her attempted suicide. Needless to say, the whole room was crying with her. I knew then that this program could save kids one-at-a-time and I needed to buy into the prevention idea.

I also met "Howard Grey" which helped me realize how putdowns - both given and received - was affecting my life and my classroom. I realized that as a teacher, I was both innocently and purposely using putdowns with my students, I was determined to "clean up my own act" before I proposed change for others.

Back in the classroom, I asked my students how I was putting them down. I assured them that I would not be angry at their responses and that I really needed them to help me change. My goal was to be putdown free and develop a classroom that was user friendly. A classroom where kindness was promoted and expected. We completed several lists of putdowns: teacher-to-student, student-to-teacher, student to student and family member to family member. We developed a classroom contract to deal with our putdown problem.

The results were amazing! No longer were students crying everyday. Fights were eliminated. Teamwork activities created situations where the process was more important than the person. The good news spread to our whole school. Our whole staff became "starfish people," adopting the starfish story as a point of inspiration and reference. Our school became fight free for four years. The "starfish" ideas spread to all our buildings and is now a peer leadership standard. We have nineteen starfish teachers who can be approached by students in crisis or in need of a friend. The starfish approach has been successful in dealing with the many aspects of the putdown problem and helped us achieve our original goal of creating a proactive prevention program in our school.

My heart has (heart-awareness-sensitivity) become permanently changed in a very fundamental way. I have become more sensitive to the needs and lives of others. It began when I became aware of a problem of control, busyness and sarcasm in my life. I started listening with not only my ears, but with my eyes and more importantly, with my heart. I finally began to hear other people - particularly young people. I think my greatest putdown was the many ways I ignored others including my own family, especially my wife - the person I love the most and who is my best friend.

I hope this will give you the motivation and tools to reinforce your commitment to be putdown free or to begin a change of heart that will lead you down the road to dealing with and eliminating these negative verbal and non-verbal assaults on our character and being. The last eight years of my teaching career truly became my best, not academically, but in totally reaching out to my students. We finally met heart to heart.

— Dennis R. Barger