I work in a very welcoming school. Visitors almost immediately are struck by how genuinely happy people around campus are: they smile at each other, wave, and shake the hands that belong to new faces. Therefore, when we get hit with an epidemic of herd-mentality bullying, it is considered a very big deal.
In our sophomore class we have an escalating issue of harassment. It happens at school, on facebook, on the weekends, and it is pretty pervasive and widespread. It is your classic group-mentality situation, none of the kids are “bad kids,” and honestly, it would hardly be a blip on the radar screen in larger public schools with much bigger fish to fry.
But we take things like this seriously, and took this case seriously.There have been various steps taken to intervene, ranging from one-on-one meetings to more recently a much more frank and open discussion about it with a large group of students. I am staying relatively vague here because I do not want to implicate anyone, except myself.
As the stories were told, and kids spoke to me individually or as a group, a sinking sensation in my stomach grew as I realized that in many ways, I was complicit in the unwelcoming behavior that was becoming such a problem at our school.
As a teacher, there are so many things going on in the classroom at a given time. We have content to cover, we have students to keep engaged, we have to deal with disciplinary issues, we have kids with raging hormones and wandering minds. It’s not easy, and it’s quite exhausting. My disciplinary approach tends to be to let the content be so exciting and engaging that kids don’t want to not pay attention, and I’d say that for a large part it has worked. However, in the last several days of conversation I have become much more self-aware of the real role that I have played in the teasing. As a young teacher, my natural inclination is to be friendly with the students, which makes it hard to discipline them, and on the other hand it means that it’s not just a business relationship, but one filled with jokes and laughter.
While this is great, and makes for an enjoyable environment, my desire for things to be fun and peachy has too often eclipsed doing what I know is right, which is shutting kids up for being mean to each other, taking the extra time to sit with kids and speak about their behavior in conversations that can be quite uncomfortable and ugly, and deal with the potential alienation that may result. I’ve always worried that if kids are alienated from me as a teacher, they will likewise disengage from my class itself.
I’ve been having a “Come to Jesus moment” where I know I need to do more to be actively involved. I doubt that my teaching style will fundamentally shift, but I know that I need to be much more thoughtful and deliberate, and most importantly, less afraid. It’s strange to be the adult in the room and to be intimidated by a 15 year old kid, but it happens to me all the time. I need to deal with it and address situations when they arise. By failing to do so, I, along with many of my colleagues, who I think tend toward a similar classroom management style, have sat back and allowed this problem to grow the way that it has.
After hearing from enough students to convince me that we as teachers need to do something, I wrote a letter to the faculty today addressing it. I’ve included it below. So far, the general response has been positive, and they’ve thanked me for raising the issue. I just hope that I above all others take my own words to heart and can more deliberately create a welcoming and safe environment for my students.