Anybody who works in a school setting probably knows that the word “bullying” is a buzz word as of late. Bullying is a hot topic and it gets a lot of attention. For me, bullying sometimes feels like a dark cloud looming over my head, as I wait for the next time it will come pouring down on me. The cloud opens up every time students use the word to describe a friendship conflict in which their feelings were hurt, or every time a parent uses the word to defend their child’s actions. Sometimes, I get so sick of the word that I don’t even want to teach it to my students, because I know it will result in the inevitable and annoying overuse. Of course I do teach about it, because it IS an important topic.
But I digress.
At my school, the excessive use of the word bullying hits overdrive as spring gets sprung. Friendships are breaking and mending naturally and repeatedly, and with this comes some mean behaviors. I spend a lot of time each spring helping students use the problem solving skills they already possess (and just need to be reminded they have).
I say all of this to say my next point – because spring is here, I’ve been thinking about bullying as a bigger issue than student-to-student relations; I’ve been thinking about it as a school-wide community issue, a climate issue, a global issue. We all know that bullying is not just a childhood problem – adults can bully too. Sadly, the students who struggle with bullying behaviors sometimes have parents or adults in their lives who struggle with it too.
Sometimes, students can even bully the adults in their lives. Sometimes, the target of the bullying is the teacher. I have seen it happen.
Let’s journey back to the year 1998-1999. I was in seventh grade, on a team mixed with eighth graders. The year I started in middle school, a new young teacher began teaching social studies. He was obviously nervous as he found his way around a classroom filled with hormonal adolescents. What most students noticed about him right away was a peculiar speech impediment – he finished most sentences with “mmkay” (kind of like Mr. Mackey, the school counselor on the adult cartoon South Park). During some class lectures, you’d hear “mmkay” a few dozen times. Needless to say, it got old. Really fast.
As you can imagine, the speech impediment became a topic of conversation and jokes for the eighth graders, which the seventh graders overheard and joined in on. Eventually, the jokes happened less behind the teacher’s back and more often to his face. I remember students interrupting his lectures to mimic his words. I never mimicked his “mmkay,” but I laughed along when others did. I was a bystander to the bullying of this new teacher.
Well, the teacher ignored the bullying for a while, until he couldn’t any longer. I was waiting for him to blow up, discipline the students, up and quit. He didn’t. Instead, he did something so special and so brave, that it worked.
I remember the social studies class that day. The teacher wasn’t standing at the board; he was sitting at a desk just as we were. He opened the discussion by telling us that he wanted to share something with us. Then he told us all about this speech impediment – he talked openly about it with us. He said it was something he struggled with for a long time, and that we weren’t the only ones who have noticed it and mimicked it. He said he had tried years of speech therapy to stop, but that it was a habit and it’s hard to stop. He ended his speech by sharing that he wanted to be our teacher and he wanted the classroom to be a cool place to learn cool stuff, and that he needed everyone to feel comfortable being there, including him.
He didn’t tell us to stop or threaten to send us to the office if we didn’t. He just put himself out there, openly and honestly, so that we could see how our actions affected him and others in the classroom. The students started to see him differently – he wasn’t just a teacher; he was a person with feelings, just like us. Seeing him put forth this effort changed the climate in this classroom from then on.
After that day, students stopped mimicking him. A few would make jokes behind his back, but those jokes soon sizzled out because no one found it funny anymore.
Thinking back on this experience, I realize how grand a gesture it was for this new teacher to open up his world to a group of awkward adolescents who needed a lesson in compassion. I commend him for his strength and courage to put his hurt feelings aside and use his struggle to teach us something more important than the curriculum that day. I don’t remember much from seventh grade social studies, but I do remember this lesson in empathy, humanity, and kindness.
As we each go forth and work with students, we may find ourselves mistreated, unappreciated, and maybe even bullied. I hope we can understand that these students need unconditional care regardless of their actions because they may be trying to push people away. I hope we can understand that these students may need a lesson in compassion because they may not get it anywhere else in their lives. I hope we can use their actions for teachable moments.
If we can do this, there will be more allies coming together than targets of bullying coming apart. It is easier said than done. We need to do it anyway. Every day.