Teachers Can’t Stop Bullies

Bullying has been a big-ticket item this past year, from grade school through high school and even hazing and abuse at the college level. I wanted to put my two cents in, because I think that the reaction we usually see is ineffective.

Most of the reaction I’ve heard of from schools and parents involves two ideas:

  1. Schools creating anti-bullying policies, and/or
  2. Teachers needing to be more active in stopping bullying.

I just don’t think those work. I think there are good things that can be done, but those aren’t them. Let’s start with what we can’t do, because I want to get the chaff out of the way before we get to the wheat.

  • Policies cannot stop bullies. This is partly because bullies do not read them or care about them, but mostly because accomplishing things is not what policies generally do. What a policy does is give a school administrator or PR representative something to point at when talking to outside press and officials. A policy is something to show that you’re trying to address the problem. Policy does nothing about the actual problem, it’s just a talking point. You don’t need a policy in order to act.
  • Zero-tolerance policies just make the issue worse. That’s how we’ll end up with kids who aren’t really bullies getting suspended for a few angry words, the way kids with Swiss Army Knives get suspended under no-weapons rules or second-graders get suspended for “sexual harassment” while kissing on the playground. It shows a lack of understanding and a lack of compassion. Zero-tolerance policies create the sort of reaction you expect from a badly programmed science fiction robot, not from a school full of intelligent, caring adults.
  • Teachers can’t stop bullies just by being more vigilant and reactive. Having been the target of bullies when I was a student, let me tell you – they’re fairly bright when it comes to simply not doing what they do in front of teachers. It can happen after school, on the walk home or in the dorms. It can happen literally behind teachers’ backs. It can clearly happen online, and people genuinely care about the online arena much more now than they did when I was in college.
  • I’ve also been a teacher myself. Living at schools with such a tight-knit communities, I know that catching bullies and telling them to stop is like… it’s like mowing the weeds instead of pulling them out. It’s like stomping the mushrooms when the actual fungus lives underground. It’s like cutting off the top of an iceberg and expecting the remaining 90% of it to sink. If a simple “hey, stop being a bully” or even a sit-down conversation is sufficient, you’re dealing with a very rare and lucky case. (Important note: bullying was not a major issue at either school I worked at, but it did happen from time to time. They’re teenagers, after all.)

So let me talk about what I think does work.

When I was bullied myself, back in the 7th and 8th grades, the one thing that worked best was another student. I had a table full of kids picking on me on a semi-regular basis. If any teacher had told them, they would have stopped for five minutes and then gone back to giving me grief as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. However, one of my friends from grade school was one of the “cool kids” in middle school.

He told them to knock it off. They did. Simple as that.

Students are our best allies when it comes to shaping school culture, and school culture is a powerful way to reduce bullying.

The schools I worked at had relatively little bullying because it was less acceptable there. Bullying was just flat-out not ok. This is a commendable attitude among teachers, but the important part is that the attitude extended to the students. When bullies came into the school they generally didn’t find a clique of like-minded thugs to hang out with, or if they did, they found out that said group was most definitely not the “popular” group. Again, I’m not saying there was no bullying where I worked – there certainly was some – but it was less common and less severe than at most other schools. The two schools have very different cultures, but the idea that bullying was unacceptable was a common element.

As teachers, we can act against bullying, but we can’t do it alone. Playing whack-a-mole or cops-and-robbers is a waste of our time. The fight against societal issues happens at a societal level, and we need to engage our students in creating the sort of society that stands together. We need to make it unacceptable to be a bully within the social fabric of the school. This does not mean that we can stand by and watch things happen, because some things need to be addressed immediately. It does mean that we can’t stop with “hey, knock it off” and imagine that we made a long-term difference.

There are a lot of good ways to do this. It’s one thing that many religious schools get right, in my mind. That’s not how I’d choose to go about it, but I’ve never heard of bullying happening at (for instance) a Quaker school. Another option is to get genuine discussion going throughout the school about the topic, perhaps in all English or History classes. Talking about bullying in class takes time away from the curriculum, but, to be frank, so does a funeral. I know which one I’d rather have on my conscience. Ask a class full of students to really talk about bullying and you’ll find that most of them find it despicable. We need to get that response out in the open more often. Another approach with some potential for success is pulling a group of influential students into the office of the head of school (or principal, or what have you) and asking them how they intend to fight the problem, and what you can do to help.

We as teachers need to have the guts to truly connect with students and their lives.

There are many ways to improve a community and build a better school culture. There are many ways that we can help – as teachers, as administrators, or just plain as adults. We cannot solve this problem ourselves, but we can be part of the solution.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on December 23, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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