Posted by: Mark | November 12, 2008

Teasing and Bullying

bully

bully

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.

Good morning everyone,

Before I launch into this, I want to first temper my thoughts by admitting that I am far from having all of the answers. I am often wary of expressing my thoughts to other teachers for fear of appearing that "I know what I'm doing, and it's you who doesn't know and needs to be fixed." I fully acknowledge my complicity in the situation that I am about to address, and wanted to clear the air of that right off the bat.

With this being said, in the wake of yesterday's meeting about teasing and bullying, I have been having very frank conversations in my classes about the subject. They generally agree that the meeting was totally necessary, the problem has been spinning out of control, and are all hopeful that it can be fixed. I for one say that I think X and Y [names omitted] did a wonderful job in addressing the issue.

One thing I have heard as a theme from the students is how difficult it is to interrupt teasing, and they have specifically addressed this in the classroom setting. I have heard from many thoughtful and heartfelt students that they have been in circumstances where we as teachers either a) allow the teasing to continue without reprimand, or b) actually engage in the teasing itself. I shamefully confess to being guilty to both of these charges on multiple occasions, and it is something that I know needs to stop. Of course I do not solely blame our faculty for the problem of teasing that exists in the sophomore class, but hearing this from students was an abrupt wake-up call to me, one which I wanted to pass along.

Many students felt empowered after yesterday's presentation to personally take a stance and stop the bullying, and I think that many teachers felt equally empowered. I share my experience to encourage all of us to take ownership for the types of comments and behavior that we find appropriate and inappropriate in our classrooms and on our campus, and to do something about it. I know that we like to befriend our students and have relationships that are much more intimate than what you would find at any other school, but I don't think this means we need to grant kids slack for acting in ways that is un-Benedictine. Our inaction has specifically discouraged students from doing the same.

Thanks for hearing me out here, and for making this a type of community where I can write this type of email and know it will fall on understanding and considerate ears.

Mark

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Responses

  1. Hello Mark,

    I am also a teacher (in the UK). I have written a blog on this isue of teasing following a story of the young Olympic diver, Tom Daley, who it has emerged that he has been visciously bullied and has been withdrawn from school. I was looking for a picture of a bully and through Google found yours. I decided not to use it but I read your blog and I am going to add this post to the list of links I have at the bottom of my article. It’s a brilliant article.

  2. My school years were filled with teasing and bullying, both at me and others. I have often wondered how adult teachers could side by on the sidelines and let it happen.
    It’s interesting to read your perspective on it, and hope you do take a more active role.

  3. Dear Mark,

    Thank you for posting such a courageous detail of your journey of self reflection. It is vital not only in our roles as teachers, but as human beings on the way to making ourselves better.

    Over the winter break, I’m researching the program, Discipline Without Stress, by Marvin Marshall (see http://www.marvinmarshall.com). I will be implementing this program with Japanese kindergarten to elementary students in January. I’m both excited and challenged at the thought of bringing such empowerment to the students in regards to recognizing, labeling and controlling their own behavior and doing it in very simple English.
    I realize, as you have, my important role as a model for this behavior. I want to give myself and my students tools for cultivating our personal power and not falling victim to our bullying, anarchic impulses. For this we need to know acceptable and non-acceptable levels of behavior and we must learn and practice procedures and strategies to enhance our awareness of our behavior, for awareness proceeds change.

    The beauty of the DWS system is that each individual takes the responsibility for their own behavior. It’s not what we CAN do, it’s all about what we CHOOSE to do, and we have the ultimate control over our choices.

    I wish you continued success in your journey.

  4. awsome

  5. […] Imagen: Harakabaraka […]


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