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Learning at its Best

Seven Thoughts on Bullying

I recently gave a keynote where I talked about personalized learning. In order to give a sense of the context, I shared my experience being bullied. I had decided the night before to scrap it from the presentation. I was afraid that they would pick up on insecurities that I might still have as an adult.

Years later, even after counseling and dealing with it in healthy ways, I find myself wanting to hide the story. Instead, I told the story of being thrown into a locker and having my clothes stolen and the sense of despair that I felt in the midst of it.

So, it has me thinking of advice I would give teachers on how to deal with the issue of bullying. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Know Your Students: It’s hard to find the victims. It is hard to explain the sheer terror of bullying. Your world stops. You feel edgy. It’s harder, still, to explain the shame that results. You feel weak. You have this lingering cycle of, “What’s wrong with me that I’m being targeted?” It’s that shame that keeps bullying secretive. In my case, I wasn’t afraid of speaking out because of retribution. I was afraid of speaking out, because I was afraid of being known.
  2. Be Vulnerable: I never told an adult, because I never knew of any adults who were bullied. The school culture is all about a one-way transparency, where students are supposed to share who they are an teachers hide behind a cloak of professionalism.
  3. Ditch the Stereotypes: Bullies don’t always look the way teachers assume they’ll look. Sometimes they are charming, socially adept, and popular. The bullies I remember were incredibly manipulative. They were buddy-buddy with the right teachers. They knew how to game the system.
  4. It’s Not About the Technology: Too often, schools realize they have a cyber-bullying problem and so they deal with the cyber rather than the bullying part of the issue. Bullying happens on playgrounds and in cafeterias and locker rooms.
  5. Avoid the Hysteria: Kids get nervous when adults look scared. They grow skeptical when the fear looks like paranoia. I’m scared of my own kids being bullied. However, if I turn it into a paranoia that’s all about me, I run the risk of losing the dialogue.
  6. A Matter of Justice: Too often, bullying is still presented as something that is somehow preventative. If kids would just do _______ then they would be okay. That’s a bit like blaming rape victims for what they were wearing. Bullying needs to be presented as a despicable crime. It is an act of cruelty both in intent and in actions.
  7. Healing: We live in an era where schools are cutting school counselor positions. However, if schools want to take bullying seriously, they need to take counseling seriously and in a way that goes beyond, “We hired someone who will help the smart kids get to the best colleges.” When I’ve seen students get bullied, there is often little follow-up beyond “Did it stop?” There was rarely a reminder that it gets worse and then it gets better. The pain lasts for awhile, but there’s hope.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


12 thoughts on “Seven Thoughts on Bullying

  1. John, As someone who was bullied throughout middle school and works with an incredible group of teenagers who are trying to create dialogue and change about this issue – I found this blog relevent and dead on. Too often it is about No Tolerance or Blaming the Victim. And you are right – both victims and bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Taking away the stigmatism is a huge first step. Jen

    Posted by SngrLittle | June 17, 2012, 11:19 am
  2. Reading this I felt a bit sick, because I was bullied at boarding school too – I came back to the dormitory one day to find my soft toys hanging from the door frame. So, not nearly as humiliating as your story, John. When I say ‘humiliating’, I like to think the bullies felt humiliated rather than yourself, possibly years later, hopefully moments later. I found being bullied totally self-esteem destroying. I told my parents and my mother was so frustrated – with me. She was a very tough person and I much more sensitive and she thought I should stand up to them to stop it. If I had, I’m sure they would have. Although of course, whatever I did, I shouldn’t have been bullied, I wish I could have not wanted to be liked so much, not cared so much and then they wouldn’t have got a reaction from me and might have left me alone. So I think bullied children can be bully-proofed by increasing their self-esteem even if the focus should be on the bullies. My son was recently bullied in school, by, as you say, some very crafty boys who were very friendly with the teacher, and then a couple of months later, was involved in an incident of bullying himself. He was trying to survive bullying by finding someone weaker than himself to bully. Since none of it was physical, the school was much less concerned. We’re homeschooling now so problem over but he’s depicted bullying a lot in his art, so it’s obviously something that still bothers him, at age 7. Thank you for raising this issue that somehow schools still can’t get right.

    Posted by homeschoolingpenny | June 17, 2012, 2:16 pm
    • I must disagree agree somewhat with your analysis. Working with bullied kids and being a victim myself, I can attest that sometimes standing up just ups the ante and the abuse. As for being “,bullied proof” – no such thing. I have one young lady, beatuiful, smart,, has friends – sill being perscuted by one group of girls. She doesn’t fit the stereotype of needing to be liked or needing friends. AND she stood her ground with them – they made her life worse and recruited more people to the cause. We really have to tackle the issue on a deeper level. It has to become socially unacceptable to bully. As long as we continue to blame the victim (for needing friends, or thinking they shouldbe stronger), we are empowering and condoning the bullies. We need a culture which won’t accept the behavoir. When the happens, it will get better. It will never go away, anymore than racism or sexism does but it will get better.

      Posted by jennifer Little | June 17, 2012, 5:07 pm
      • I don’t think I ever claimed that we could “bully-proof” schools or that “just stand up” is the answer. I’m not sure you read my post very thoroughly if that was what you got from it. I think my point in number six gets close to what you are pointing toward. It has to be seen as socially unacceptable, but it has to be more than that. It has to be seen as unjust, as wrong, as immoral.

        Posted by John T. Spencer | June 17, 2012, 5:11 pm
        • Sorry John, I wasn’t responding to your post regarding my second comment but rather to homeschool’s. Her comments about standing up for herself and creating bully proof kids were what I was responding to. Sorry for the confusion.

          Posted by jennifer Little | June 17, 2012, 6:33 pm
        • Sorry, Jennifer. I misinterpreted your comment.

          Posted by John T. Spencer | June 17, 2012, 6:53 pm
      • I totally agree that the victim should never be blamed and that the culture should be changed to never accept bullying. And I totally defer to your experience in these matters that standing up for yourself may not help and in some instances actually makes it worse. The work you are doing is great and I hope you get it more widely accepted.

        Posted by homeschoolingpenny | June 18, 2012, 12:44 am
  3. John, this is such an important topic. I find that what is most powerful is talking with my students about why bullies bully and how to recognize bullying when you see it. Kids even as young as 3rd grade understand that bullies often bully because they were bullied. When I teach about cyberbullying, we discuss not only virtual experiences, but also experiences students have had in ‘real life.’ The more students can make these connections, the more they will realize that there is no difference between good citizenship on and off screen. I’m not sure that our focus should be about creating ‘bully-proof’ kids as much as it should be, as John’s posts suggests, about sharing stories, talking through it and trying to understand the causes and effects of bullying with our kids.

    Posted by Mary Beth | June 17, 2012, 9:31 pm
  4. John, This is brave and thank you, as usual, for a powerful and insightful post.

    Posted by Kirsten | June 18, 2012, 7:06 am
  5. This is an interesting read that I just came across. It’s a post about a book called “Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers” by Neufeld and Mate. This post is about Chapter 8 of this book and it talks a bit about how being securely attached to a parent or other trusted adult, like a teacher, can help a child cope with bullying (which of course should never, ever be accepted in any way) because the child will be LESS (but of course not immune) to the way they are perceived by their peers. I am not advocating bully-proofing or anything like that, but it’s an interesting read about parenting generally and the importance of children always being closer to their parents, or other trusted adult/s, than their peers, even through their teenage years.

    Posted by homeschoolingpenny | June 18, 2012, 1:58 pm
  6. Thank you for this post, John – kids and adults need to have human role models to follow and caretakers to trust so that cycles of bullying can be interrupted and people can find healing.

    Best wishes,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 21, 2012, 10:13 pm

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