I had an amazing career as a teacher: 39 years, 3 states, 7 schools, 10 principals, teaching K-12, as an elementary teacher, a school librarian, a Title I reading teacher, and an English teacher. It was wonderful. But there was a huge failure…one I felt every day, one I could never remedy. Bullying happened all around me, and sometimes I was oblivious, and sometimes when I confronted it, I didn’t help the situation.
Bullying in our schools is systemic. We put signs up that declare our schools as Bully-Free-zero-tolerance zones. But we don’t know how to stop bullying, and our efforts when bullying is reported to us is pathetic.
I tried so hard to be aware of bullying or teasing in my classroom. As a visual learner, I saw the subtle expressions on my students’ faces and the body language during a lesson: the hunched shoulders, the sly, sideline glance, the eyes caught and laughter barely suppressed, the glares, the bunched fists. The eye-rolls. When I would see this, I had a choice. Do I interrupt the lesson and say something? Do I ignore? Do I add my own glare to the mix? What do I do? What is the right lesson for ALL my students at that moment? The answer is. “Yes.” I did It all at one time or another. Not always successfully. Sometimes I just acknowledged that I was aware of ‘something’ going on as an undercurrent in the classroom and I needed it stopped. Sometimes I would ask kids to join me in the hall to assure a more private discussion. Every one of those little ripples distressed me.
I was proud of my Reading for Pleasure class because it brought very different students together, sometimes for the first time in their high school career, in the same class, everyone working beside each other, but everyone working on his or her own book. A student once told me mine was the most democratic class in our school: jocks, artists, cheers and poms, student leaders, special education students, kids who used wheel chairs, kids who have mental handicaps and Aspergers and mental health issues. Straight kids and LBGT kids. Highly religious students and ones who were confident atheists. Kids who were in all AP classes and kids who were barely passing their classes…all together, all reading, all (I HOPE), interacting with respect.
That respect started with me. I hold to the philosophy that, as your teacher I give you my full respect immediately. Then, day-by-day I will earn yours. I earned respect (I HOPE) by treating students with equality and equity, by listening, by learning about their lives and their hopes. By learning about their educational struggles, and how I can help. By creating a classroom climate of positive acceptance. By telling them I cared about them and believed they would succeed in my class. That they were partners in this endeavor. That I could be trusted with their thoughts and reflections. I knew it would take time, and I invested that time.
My expectation for my students was that they would be respectful to each other…they would be patient to the student who needed more time to express herself, they’d be supportive of the student who was nervous about being in front of the class. They’d accept our differences and find a way to connect. That they would begin to lose their fears of kids who were different and had different needs. Was I successful? Not always, but I never gave up. I wanted any bullying outside my door to stop AT my door.
I tried to be in the halls between classes to monitor…I served every possible duty station in school…lunchroom, hallway, after-school, before-school, recess…even the dreaded bathroom duty at Prom. I tried to watch interactions, aggressive or submissive body language, big groups of kids pointing and laughing…I wasn’t afraid to step up to a student and ask what was going on…how I could help. I’ve escorted aggressive kids to the office, and I’ve used my presence to discourage negative behavior. I wanted kids to know I would support them, and try to keep them safe.
Usually when I confronted kids, I could have recited their response right along with them, “I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean anything, I was just kidding, he can’t take a joke, we were only teasing, we always joke around like this.” And on and on and on. We all knew they were lying, and none of us knew what to do next. That was my failure.
When students came to me to report bullying, I tried to listen, to find the underlying story. I would talk with the other student and get that same line: “I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean anything, I was just kidding, he can’t take a joke, we were only teasing, we always joke around like this.” Then it becomes one student’s word against another. Then, I was lost in that quagmire again…lost and failing all my students.
One thing I regularly did, despite school policies, was to open my classroom up at lunch for kids who hated the snake pit that is the Commons at lunch. We had to be clever and subversive, but I loved giving kids a quiet space to eat and visit. One group, my beloved Lunch Bunch, stuck with me for all four years of their high school careers, long after they really needed any kind of safe spot. I could be a listening ear. But that ‘what next’ was so hard.
I DID know better than to say, “Just ignore them, they’ll stop soon, they will move onto another person soon, they’ll forget you.” OR, “Stand up for yourself. Don’t let them push you around. Get physical.” I would, if I knew the kids, call home and talk to parents…with mixed results, for sure. I would talk to counselors and principals, trying to work out a response. But mostly I failed.
I read extensively on my own, looking for answers to “What do I say?” I read and read and read and read and read and read and read and read and read. I read fiction, adult and young adult…looking for answers to the two questions that plagued me: “How do I identify bullying in my classroom and in my school? What can I do to respond and make a real difference?” Those answer eluded me then, and they still do.
All this has flooded back to me as I see my own granddaughters deal with bullying and aggressive behavior, and as we in Norman respond to the events at Norman High. I wonder…what would I say, what could I say, that would make a difference?
When the girls talk about someone picking on them, my first question is, “Did you tell a teacher?” I continue to hope the professionals in the schools will support my girls and everyone else’s girls and boys. They usually tell me, yes they did, but nothing happened. I know that the privacy laws that bind education and educators mean that often kids don’t know what happens next to another student. Schools cannot reveal conversations or consequences. But, the perception for kids who shared their hurt with teachers is, no one did anything. I then suggest they find a safe place to be, to avoid the bully, knowing that really doesn’t solve anything. Then, I just talk and listen…and listen…and listen. We talk strategies, but I have few to offer besides 'keep yourself safe.'
This year my oldest Grand is a freshman at Norman High. Earlier this fall, she told me about a friend who was attacked by another girl, a stranger; the attack was videotaped. The friend came out with sore ribs and a shiner and some hysterical parents and friends. She and my Grand learned about staying safe and aware. The police were called, but told her parents the ‘she said-she said’ wouldn’t lead to any kind of resolution. (Just like in those bullying incidents in school). The friend felt somewhat safe at school, because the girl who had hit her went to North, and there was little opportunity for the two to see each other, and there were friends around her for support. Well, soon after, the other girl transferred to NHS, and a stare-down began…my Grand and her friend began looking over their shoulders and scanning crowds.
The #YesAllDaughters campaign to bring awareness of bullying, rape, school neglect became something my Grand cared about…she was acquaintances with the girls who were raped, and better friends with others who joined the #YesAllDaughters movement. On the day of the walk-out, my Grand had her mom's permission to leave school and she joined the peaceful protest. She learned a lot about standing up for your values, and your friends…of being there for others.
But the most important moment for her was a private one, not caught on camera, not involving any clever signs or chants. The girl who had hit her friend found them in the crowd, and apologized…said she realized what she did was bullying, and bullying is wrong. The three will never be fast friends, but they reached a peace. They looked into each other’s eyes and recognized they each deserved respect. I believe all the girls were deeply affected by this encounter.
One private moment – with no teacher intervention. One private moment, acknowledging each other’s worth. One moment, brought about by the suffering of friends.
As a reflective teacher, I need to have a ‘what next’ plan, even though I’m not in the classroom any more. I need to take some kind of action, to keep learning, to participate, to reach out. I may have failed my students, but I can still learn and grow. I can help forge a plan, a strategy. I can be a bridge between education and concerned parents.
Norman Schools has pledged to work on a plan to keep kids safe…I hope to be part of that work. Maybe I can make up for that failure to solve the problem in my classroom, in my school.
I can, and I must do something…but in the meantime, our kids are more than capable of participating in the solution as well.