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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.