How to Stop Bullying

Nicholas Kristof ran a contest which ends today about bullying. I love that he decided that American teens were the experts on teen bullying. I know when I was in middle school and being bullied, I would spend my time in class critiquing every one of my teachers’ bungling attempts to make it all better. Most of their failings came from the fact that they were more interested in ridding their lives of conflict than of making my life easier or less painful, but they also lacked any understanding of teenage social dynamics and had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager. So I composed lists in my head of things I would do differently when I was a teacher. I’m not sure I’m going to be a teacher anymore (though still a definite possibility), but I still have plenty of ideas on how to stop bullying. I’m technically still a teenager, but I’m three years out of high school and it’s possible all my advice is hopelessly out of date. I wrote this as an open letter to teacher, and it’s a little didactic (I had a lot of options for format, and I decided against heartwrenching anecdotes from my bully-stricken past), but I like it anyway. Let me know what you think!

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Open Letter to Teachers: Here’s How You Actually Stop Bullying
Hey there teachers,
Bullying is complicated, so I don’t blame you for not knowing how to stop it. You’re wrapped up in the immense difficulty of being friendly enough to be liked, strict enough to be respected and spectacular enough to be remembered. That is the job of a teacher, and it’s hard enough to teach the material effectively and walk the tightrope of student perception without getting involved in the nitty-gritty of student interpersonal relationships, especially if you have as much chance of doing harm as good.
So here’s what you need to know: students, bullies and bullied alike, need friends and advocates, and to varying degrees, teachers can be both. Students who are being bullied are hurt by far more than the words hurled at them; they are also being harmed by the loneliness of going through the experience alone. If you see students being bullied, reach out to them gently, reminding them that the teacher is always available for talking, comfort and a safe space. Then follow through, listening, giving advice and affirming that bulling is unacceptable and that it is not a reflection of the worth of the bullied. And do the same for bullies. Bullies gain social power by taking it away from others; they could use a friend. As a  teacher, as an authority figure but also a kind presence, you can speak firmly against the behavior of a bully, retreating not a bit from your position against the bully’s actions while still reaching out to a student, a child, who might need nothing else than a trusted adult to remind them that they are a worthwhile person and can be popular and respected without doing harm.
The advocate aspect of the your role is important, too. Any time bullying, of any degree, is witnessed, you should make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. Importantly, it is the behavior that is being attacked, not the bully, and the bullied student is not being made a focus of attention. Rather, the mistreatment of fellow students is simply not to be tolerated at any time. The fact that the bullying can shift to times and places where you are not around is to be addressed by being a resource for any students involved in bullying, even as bystanders, as mentioned above. Students should know that you can be trusted, and that you will go to the administration or parents only when necessary, but then without hesitation, for example if there is any physical violence involved. This fairness and ability to analyze a situation serves you well when they suspect plagiarism or cheating, and it will serve you well here.
Bullying is a problem. It hurts children on either side of conflict as well as those who are not involved, and if it continues to stymie teachers, then children will have to fend for themselves while facing treatment that no person, let alone a teenager, should ever have to endure at the hands of their peers. The job of a teacher already encompasses the roles necessary to stop bullying; you must only appropriately act on them. No more excuses. Start now.

6 thoughts on “How to Stop Bullying

  1. This is a sagacious call to responsible, measured action addressing the needs of the bullies and the bullied!

  2. Unknown says:

    The problem for teachers is that they have a conflict of interest. Bullying is bad, but it exists on a spectrum with violence at one end and mild teasing at the other end. (Some might say that chronic taunting is worse than violence but I digress.)However, a certain amount of teasing is accepted as a legitimate part of socialization and socialization is considered important by teachers.So in a sense bullies do part of their job for them, which might explain why most bullying, even when noticed, goes unreported.

  3. L-bomb says:

    I think that your letter is completely impractical, in addition to insulting. Do I tell you how to do your job? Everyone has an opinion about how teaching should be better. I'd like to see you and everyone else spend a day in a public school teacher's shoes. ESPECIALLY a middle school teacher. I happen to love teaching middle school, but I am certainly in the minority.As for, "If you see students being bullied, reach out to them gently, reminding them that the teacher is always available for talking, comfort and a safe space." How EXACTLY is a teacher supposed to DO that? I know! I'll set 42 other kids to work while I invite that ONE kid up to my desk where everyone else can hear and see me talking to them about bullying. I should add, as a public school teacher, I am NEVER supposed to be alone in a room with a student. Much less touch them.Sure, you can make it clear that name calling is unacceptable, BUT what if a kids says "no" and continues. You write a detention, call home. The behavior still continues. The parents are not in control of the child's behavior, many parents are completely uninvolved in their children's education. You give the child a seat away from the rest of the class and they refuse to sit in that chair. You write a referral, nothing happens for three weeks, then the kid sees an administrator and by the time they do, that student has forgotten why they got a referral in the first place. I had a kid jump on top of another kid and rub his private parts in the other kid's face. THAT kid has a seat 5 feet away from everyone else.Everyone knows bullying happens, it's been around for centuries. The reason why it hasn't stopped is because it's just not that EASY to make it go away.In my classroom, if kids say nasty things to each other, that's speaking trash. And if kids speak trash, they have to pick up a piece of trash and throw it away. One senior in my advanced chorus had to pick up two pieces of trash today. They absolutely LOVE tattling on each other. NOBODY wants to pick up old trash so this is a very effective consequence. Unfortunately the custodial staf has been cut this year so there is PLENTY of trash in the classrooms. >II have had a very bad day. I've been trying to take my kids on an awesome field trip and the trip was not approved by the administration. I've been working on trying to get this thing together for 3 months! Two high schoolers out right refused to learn the dance steps for the song in the Spring Concert… I taught a middle school class today with NO CHAIRS. And finally, the giant hole in the wall was finally mended and painted over, but I found out DURING CLASS that the chorus is not allowed to be in the room because of the TOXIC FUMES. Alright, I'll take them in the hall. Bullying is NOT on my list of priorities.

  4. Strangelet says:

    Thanks, D!Unknown: I take your point, and I think that's important. I suppose my system leaves it the teacher's discretion to decide what is too much, since I think there's a fair point to be made that kids shouldn't be too coddled, and some razzing or teasing isn't too harmful. Unfortunately, the teacher has an obvious incentive not to interfere at all, since it's difficult and stressful, as I said in my intro and as L-bomb has made quite clear. I think, also, if we're being charitable to teachers, we should note that it's possible they're worried about making things worse for the kid, if they get bullied worse outside of school or something similar.L-bomb: Thank you so much for your comments. Because this was a short essay written for submission, it's much different than the blog posts I normally write, in which I think I'm usually much more careful to allow for hypotheticals, alternate arguments and the like. So I should clarify where I'm coming from: I completely agree that being a teacher, especially a middle school teacher, and especially especially a public teacher, is incredibly difficult, and teachers are constantly told by the media and society that they're doing it wrong. If you check out my other posts on education (there's a tag), I think you'll find that my views are very sympathetic to yours. My experience has been purely in a private school setting, and while I stand by the system I've laid out, I never intended to be able to handle the more extreme of repeated behavioral disruptions in class. No one has figured out how to fix that in public schools, and I certainly don't have a better idea. I guess what I probably should have said is that this might stop bullying, but more importantly, this will reduce the harm that bullying does, since it gives the bullied an outlet and a resource. I absolutely do not advocate talking to the student in front of the others, in fact I was careful to say that ostracizing them further is exactly the wrong thing to do. I did not know they were not allowed to be in a room with a teacher; this makes things more difficult, I admit, but I expect that there might be some time during the day when a few words of support might be given. It could make all the difference, since the people who really need help, especially if stopping the bullies is as difficult as you say, are those who are bullied. I hope your day improves.

  5. Dealing with school bullies is something that nearly every child will encounter at some point in time. As a parent, it is heartbreaking to hear about a school bully who has his or her eye on your precious baby. As parents, it is our job to help teach our children, the correct method for dealing with school bullies and how to defend themselves. If you would like to work towards making your children's school safer, you can visit this link, you might find it interesting: https://safekidzone.com/

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