I was in a store looking to purchase a jacket the other day, and as conversation developed, the salesperson helping me learned that I am an educator. His parting advice to me was, “You do great work; now make sure you do something about bullying. It’s a big problem.” He was, no doubt, struggling with his own experiences of the bullying that makes its way into our schools. Some days it seems that bullying is an issue not unlike the poor—it will always be with us.
At the core, this salesperson was taking part in an essential exercise just by speaking up about the issue. He was envisioning a school culture where bullying is not the norm. I can’t say that our school has got it “right,” but I can say that with some concerted effort over the past decade, we have made things better and bullying is much less of an issue than it had been. So how did we get from the day when my principal said to me in our August meetings, “I want you to clear up the bullying, and I want you to do it soon” (or something like that) to today?
In discussion with colleagues at our school, I’ve identified seven elements of a positive school culture program that have developed over time to become our formula for minimizing the stereotypical bullying that is associated with schools.
1. Develop and Share Your Vision
The school’s vision statement may contain a picture of a community caring for one another and lifting each other up. If the school’s vision does not include this, a new vision statement from the guidance department, student affairs, or the school office might be created. Real vision and mission statement language is valuable, allowing students to identify that they have a part to play in the direction of the school. In fact, they need to make that connection to the larger organization and feel that they belong. One we’ve used in the past goes like this:
(Our) Christian high school will be a vibrant Christian community of learning where the love of God is evident and where students will be equipped to serve in our society as followers of Christ. Based on the above mission and vision, as a community we value . . .
a) Christian principles of trust, cooperation and love as key characteristics of this Christian community of learning
b) the commitment of all members of this community to be people dedicated to the healing and reconciling work of Jesus in this world
The wording of the vision statement should be easily understood. Regardless of the individual or group of students’ acceptance of the overall vision of the school, they can agree that they want to be cared for and protected. One could even argue that bullying is an attempt to protect oneself and to feel safe. Every student needs safety at school. The critical connection for students is that they need to recognize their responsibility to provide for and guard that safe environment for others if they hope to achieve it for themselves. Thomas Sergiovanni identifies this need for a network of shared ideologies (72).
2. Share Your Vision as Early as Possible
Within two weeks of their first year at our high school, the entire grade 9 class attends a “culture session” with their guidance counselor. This follows a busy week of “firsts,” as well as an after-school orientation and fun night on their first Friday. Students have many points of contact during that first week, including each guidance counsellor, the principal and vice-principals, and student leaders. The culture session formally presents the vision for school culture and invites students to participate in achieving that vision. Leaving this presentation that outlines our vision and our dreams for the school to a later time would allow room for competing visions to intrude or to cloud their experience. It is absolutely critical to have students imagine early on what their school experience might be like before other experiences become firmly entrenched in their minds. Having been exposed to the formal leadership of the school as well as student leaders, they have been seen many of the people that actively buy in to the vision and work hard to live it out. Meeting other (often older) students in this context shows them that striving for a positive culture can also be socially acceptable and even “cool.”
3. Engage Your Bystanders (Which Is Everyone)
In almost every circumstance where bullying is addressed, the common message delivered to bullies is that they must stop, and to victims that they should report and realize they are not alone.