We asked Russell if he would write a personal letter to teachers and prospective teachers on what they need to know about bullying and harassment and what they can do. We hope that his thoughts will be the impetus for the beginning of a serious conversation by educators.
In today's classrooms, it's hard not to have disruptions in the educational process. With students of different needs, backgrounds and intellect, teaching (and learning) can be hard with disruptions. There might be an unruly child or two with a hyperactive disorder who acts out during a lesson. You might have experienced (or will experience for those who are student teachers) students' heads pointing downwards toward their lap, texting on their phone during a lesson. Sometimes, you'll have parents who advocate their child—not the teachers or the school system—for better or worse, kind of like “the customer is always right” doctrine. These are quite common distractions. Worse yet, bullying can eclipse these relatively small distractions in the educational process.
What effect does bullying have on victims in relation to their learning process? Students who are bullied will find it really difficult and often treacherous to take in the lessons they need to learn. Why? Quite often, when you've just been bullied, you are no longer focusing on what you should be focusing on. You get worried, or you might be sad, mad, scared or upset. Maybe you might be ashamed. Thus, your self-esteem will collapse, and adding fractions will feel so much more difficult, if not impossible. Let's take a look at a different perspective: Nobody likes to be in a place that they attribute negatively. Repeated bullying can make victims feel unwelcome and isolated. Victims of bullying will dread going to school and may frequently become absent. Everybody knows that chronic absences, no matter the circumstance, are detrimental to the educational process.
What about the bullies, and why do they do what they do? Bullies almost always look for “faults” – i.e. what is unique about a person, but gets erroneously interpreted into a defect. The bully usually feels low self-esteem, and feels that they must enhance it, albeit in a negative way. Sometimes, bullies are actually victims of bullying as well. There's also the fact that some students may come from abusive or abrasive families and continue their behavior at school because they think their behavior is acceptable.
What can be done about bullying? I always get asked that question, and unfortunately, there are no right or wrong answers, and it's utopia to think that bullying can be eliminated. I am not an expert on behavior, and it all depends on the kind of culture the school has, and even then, you will be dealing with different kinds of students who come from different cultures, beliefs, values and other factors.
There are good preventative measures that educators can take, though, such as:
• Taking on a “zero-tolerance” stance. No matter what, no matter who, don't tolerate bully behavior. Stay firm with consequences. Stay consistent. When you speak with a student who bullies, try some strategies to help him or her reconsider their actions. For example, ask, “How would you feel if the tables were turned and this happened to you?” Almost always, they'll rethink their behavior.There are certain issues that will never go away, and student bullying happens to be one of them. On the positive side, it can be less of a problem if you are firm, take no tolerance, vigilant and aware.
• Maintaining vigilance. Watch for behavior changes. Has a student who has participated very well in class discussions suddenly become quiet, or a student who normally does stellar work now starts to struggle? While there may be other circumstances (and it's equally important to see the root of the problem for problems not relating to bullying), there's a chance that student may be bullied and harassed. Vigilance doesn't stop there—watch for bullies as well. Even something as subtle as saying something mildly negative (such as “Your shirt looks funny”) may grow and fester to more aggressive behavior. Watch and act accordingly.
• Speaking up. You all know it's necessary to report serious or constant harassment issues to administration, right? Not only do you tell the heads of the school, the parents of the bully need to know. There's always the assumption that the bully's parents are already aware and won't do anything to correct their child's behavior, but that isn't always true. Unfortunately, there are parents who are indifferent, and although rare, actually find no fault in bully behavior. Be candid. Openly admit that their child has a problem. Offer to be an ally and help to come to a resolution that everyone can agree on.
• Being a condolence. While not a preventative measure, it always helps to make yourself available to a student who happens to be a victim of bullying. Never “showcase” your attention to other students, such as in front of the class, as that can cause more problems. Perhaps ask to see the student during recess or whenever, and reassure the student that you won't allow it to happen. It can be even more reassuring when you mention that you might bring up an anecdote of when you were in a similar situation, so the student doesn't feel alone.