“He’s bullying me,” I hear in the hallway, and when I look over my shoulder, I see two boys who are obviously friends, both with smiles on their faces, playing with each other. I know from watching them that this not a situation qualifying for a referral, even though we have a short conversation about the word they have chosen to use.
“Sir, I don’t think you understand the definition of bullying,” the administrator informs a parent. I pass by, taking note of the folded arms, the red face, and then listen to the array of words and offenses.
“Our school is starting a new anti-bullying program,” the friendly local character education teacher tells his class. Then he leads the students in an activity involving inspirational quotes and talks with them about how bullying starts in families, sometimes cycling down from abusive parents.
When I first started teaching seven years ago, bullying was a word that appeared only occasionally, rearing its head once or twice in parent meetings throughout the year. Now, the word seems to have new prominence. It is as if bullying opened up an office and set regular hours. A series of news stories and a focus on anti-bullying curricula have placed the word firmly in our academic vernacular. Students use the term correctly and incorrectly. I myself have even been guilty of misusing this word when describing the behavior of other adults.
Finding a Solution
As part of my school’s response to bullying, we conduct weekly meetings focusing on bullying and life issues. For thirty minutes each Wednesday, we host class meetings in which we define and redefine this issue. Definition is a large part of our focus.
As a language arts teacher, I bring in stories, videos, and writing about bullying incidents and character education topics. I also talk about the stereotypical bully and share personal stories from my time in school. I explain to my students that, because of the prominence of this topic in the news, our school is taking a proactive approach.
So, how do the students respond? Many of them are positive. There are always dissenters. I teach eighth grade, and there are always voices in my classroom that have a propensity for disagreement. It is as if my students are already practicing becoming full-grown Americans, stating their disdain for the mandatory and the regulated.
All in all, when my students realize that it is not my intention to preach to them or talk about the exact same topic every week (this is tiresome even to the most patient middle-school kid), they really do not mind a half-hour of character education. They enjoy the stories the most, and when I tell them about times that I missed the mark and failed to defend the disenfranchised when I was a student, they take this in and reflect on their own choices.
The Trickle-Down Environment
I am honestly not sure that trickle-down economics work; the rich always seem to enjoy getting richer. When it comes to behavior, though, I believe a trickle-down effect is essential. I see a true interest in developing a positive environment from my school’s administration. When the principal and administrative staff have a positive outlook, it trickles down to the faculty, and when the faculty is positive, the river flows down to the students.
I have also found the opposite to be true. When an administrator openly criticizes his or her employees and creates an environment of distrust, it is evident in the teachers. Who we are outside of the classroom, I believe, comes into the classroom with us. We track our attitudes and our worldview around with us, and our students will always absorb what we bring into our classrooms.
After three years of thirty-minute meetings about character, my students are still not perfect. I know that negative behavior still goes on. My school is not a utopian society, eliminating all problems. Some attitudes are still negative, while others tend toward the positive. Many of my students can articulate what it means to lead a productive and positive life.
So, do we need a bullying curriculum to help us achieve positive environments? Recent news suggests that these programs may actually intensify problems. On the other hand, we cannot take for granted that students will leave our classrooms knowing what it is to be a decent human being without at least some attention to defining ethical personhood. According to random sample survey results, there has been some progress at our school in the area of bullying. Systems and curricula likely will not provide a balm for all ills, but stories, discussions, and even a focus on character traits can still stimulate some positive change.
- Gross, Natalie. “Schools with Anti-bullying Programs May See More Bullying as a Result, Research Shows.” Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Web. 26 October 2013 <lubbockonline.com/education/2013-10-26/schools-anti-bullying-programs-may-see-more-bullying-result-research-shows#.UshTRZEV1Ts>.