John Walcott introduced the conversation with the following:
In discussions of how to combat, or avoid, bullying, the importance of community is often discussed. As teachers, we know it is important to build a classroom community that facilitates learning, helps students feel welcome and secure, and—to the extent that this is possible—reflects and builds the body of Christ. Please discuss the importance of building a strong community in your school or classroom and specific practices or strategies that you have found to be effective in realizing this goal.
Rebecca De Smith responded with a strong statement regarding the reality of bullying in our schools and a specific challenge for teachers:
I recently spent a Friday evening watching Lee Hirsch’s documentary movie, Bully (2011), which follows five bullied students throughout the course of a school year. This was a powerful and sad film highlighting the deep hurt, humiliation, and disrespect shown to these children on the bus, in the cafeterias, hallways, and classrooms. For me, one of the most discouraging aspects of the documentary was the reaction from teachers and administration to the accusations of bullying for these kids—most of them denied or dismissed the incidents as minor.
Bully focuses on a tragic component of our school systems—the fact that many children are bullied on a daily basis, and unfortunately this includes children in Christian schools. As Christian teachers, whether we work in public or private schools, we need to take bullying seriously and address the issues involved immediately. I have witnessed the traumatic results of children having been bullied, and I have heard teachers and principals respond with dismissive comments such as, “It will be okay,” or, “Kids just need to toughen up,” or, “Boys will be boys.”
The documentary film does not show many caring educators standing up in the face of bullying, but rather suggests that the best way to handle the situation is to empower other students to take action so that they become advocates for those who are bullied. This may be an effective way to combat bullying, but as teachers, we must lead the way in setting a tone of love, acceptance, and reconciliation in our school communities. As Christian teachers, we must be vigilant with our students and be aware of what happens in the hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, and cafeterias. We must build positive relationships with our students so they feel comfortable talking to us about being bullied or seeing bullying take place. We must model an attitude of acceptance and compassion for all students, even those who don’t always “fit in.” We must have the courage to follow through with the students (and their parents) who are being bullied or who are doing the bullying. We must do these things because God calls us to love and nurture all of his children in our school communities.
As a result of this film, The Bully Project has been created with a goal to reach ten million kids who are being bullied on a regular basis. It works toward preventing bullying and creating caring, respectful school communities where students can thrive. That’s a common goal that all schools can share! Let’s not be afraid to make our Christian schools communities of grace and shalom, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christian responded by discussing his response to bullying, encouraging us to follow the example of Christ and to focus on what it means that we are all created in God’s image:
In its various forms, bullying destroys communities and it withers individuals. Whether subtle or overt, the effects of bullying can last for many years beyond the initial events. I know this—as many readers certainly do—from personal experience as a victim, perpetrator, and complacent spectator. As I write, I can easily conjure the feelings from over thirty years ago. This fact alone is proof that we need to take all cases of bullying seriously.
As a teacher, I’ve dealt with many cases of bullying and each time, I’ve reflected about the most appropriate way to handle the situation. Certainly the one being bullied needs protection, encouragement, and healing. This student needs to know that I both see and hear what’s going on. (Rebecca, you’re right! We must constantly have our senses tuned to the ways kids are dealing with each other.) But even more important than that, students need to know that I will take concrete steps to make sure that my classroom—at the very least—will be a place of respite. The bully needs correction and even punishment, but will also likely need healing as well. My conversations with bullies have always centered around their targets as image-bearers of God. You are simply not allowed to declare unworthy what God has called worthy.
If bullying is related to discrepancies of power, if it involves the strong taking advantage of the weak, then we have no more perfect exemplar than Christ. Modeling his direct confrontations with this type of imbalance makes our work focused on the Beatitudes—we work to be peacemakers and pure of heart and merciful. Creating a culture that recognizes our shared worthiness in Christ will not end bullying, but it may reduce it significantly. When we enable people to respect the lives and feelings of others, we protect each other from selfishness, where the bully is unable to consider anyone’s needs but his or her own.
The newest member of our panel, Gayle Monsma, contributed a concrete example of how her school is working to build community:
I am the principal at Covenant Christian School, a community of about 250 students kindergarten to grade 9; we have always had a strong emphasis on building community among our students. This year, we decided that every student in our school will have a buddy, so our kindergarten students are paired with grade 5, grade 1 with grade 6, and so on. While the buddies may see each other more often, the foundation of what we do together happens at our weekly assembly.
On the way to the assembly, the older students stop by and pick up their buddies from their classroom so that they can sit together during the assembly. During the assembly, we always include some sort of buddy interaction, ranging from things such as doing an activity together to discussing where they have seen God in creation in the last week.
As we’ve been doing this for a while, I asked several students their impressions of our buddy program. The older students liked having buddies because when they were young they liked talking to the older “cool” kids, so now they can be that person for their buddy. They think it is neat to hear the younger students’ perspectives when they discuss a question. When they see their buddy in the hallway, they often get a hug or a high five. They appreciate just getting to know the younger students. The younger buddies appreciated spending time with their older buddies and learning more about them. They liked it when they went to other end of the school and would see their buddy in the hallways. They said that sometimes their buddy helps them with their mittens or doing up their jacket (a big deal in our snowy climate!).
One significant thing I realized when talking to the students was that every child knew the name of his or her buddy and often that of a friend’s buddy as well. This may not seem like a big deal, but we are seeing relationships build across the grades that would not have happened otherwise. So now rather than the older students just being “big and scary” to the little ones, they know their names (and that they can ask for help doing up their jacket!). And for the older students, the younger kids aren’t just “little and annoying,” but they can address them by name and get a high five on the way to phys ed. All of this is great evidence of a growing community at Covenant.
John closed our discussion with the following comments:
Our panelists have highlighted the reality and destructive power of bullying in our schools, while also offering important perspectives on how to respond to bullying—both personally and corporately—and how to grow the community of God in our schools. I hope that the resources and ideas shared here will be useful as we seek to build God’s kingdom and share, in our relationships with one another, “the same mind of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).
The panel consists of:
- Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
- Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
- Gayle Monsma, who serves as principal at Covenant Christian School in Leduc, Alberta
- John Walcott, who is assistant professor in the education department at Calvin College.