I am in a bit of a quandary. I have a student, let's call her Jane, who for the past 6 months has confided in me that she was being bullied. I know what you are going to say, “6 months!” but please hear me out; there are reasons I have yet to take effective action on this issue.
She has told me this bully spreads ‘rumors’ and fabricated stories about her in an attempt to isolate her from her friends, that she makes aggressive gestures at her, that she gets in her face behind closed doors but never when others are looking. She has told me some of her best friends don’t believe her and think that she is over reacting, that she feels alone, desperate, and unhelped. I mean seriously, if her own friends don’t believe her!! Hyperbole seems to be second nature to this kid!
She even has written me emails- had the audacity to complain in writing! She states that her supposed bully demands apologies and submission when she is around her. Admittedly, I had one parent from outside the situation come to me privately and share that he had seen this behavior happen- but only once! Of course, I told my student what any good teacher would, that sometimes it’s just easier to say sorry and give the bully what they want. I mean, why make her life more difficult? I told her to toughen up, stop caring, just take the higher road and ignore the bully. I told her that life is full of bully’s and that she should get used to it. I told her next time she sees her ‘bully’ to be sickly sweet to her and that will help her see the error of her way. I told her to be more humble and accept that I was doing my best to help her.
Personally, I think this student is a bit immature, paranoid and dramatic. But this is the way it is with girls. They are just so emotional, and really I am doing her no favors by feeding into her soap opera. She has already missed days of school for ‘stress’- LOL- I wish I could take a couple of days off and chalk it up to a mean ol’ bully.
Finally, I have had meetings between the two students, and honestly, the accused seems so, well… nice. Her parents are influential at the school and I am worried about parent and board fall out. Right now it seems like an exercise in finger pointing. I mean, whom do I believe?
If you are an educator, I bet you are screaming at your screen right now, enraged at my lack of empathy and action. You are steaming, half out of your seat ready to pounce down my throat or at least have an
ALL CAPS RAGE in the comments section.
And so you should.
In reality, teachers would never, ever allow this to happen if a student was being bullied. We would take this child’s claim seriously, dig deep to find answers, we would take the evidence provided by witnesses as valid. We would mediate, and if mediation didn’t work there would be serious consequences for the bullying actions. We would not victimize the victim, and there would never be a time we just rolled over and let it happen.
So why isn’t this the case when a teacher gets bullied?
Yes, you read that right. When a teacher gets bullied. In my 14 years of teaching I have witnessed parents, administration, even teachers be bullies.
As I move on to a new job I have been chucking papers that I have kept for the last 14 years. I came across a booklet entitled, “How to have successful parent teacher conferences”, and in a large box on the bottom of the page were the words,
Now, I understand the sentiment but let’s critically analyze the discourse. The what in what is not being said. Parents are expected to be emotional (unprofessional), it is inherent to their nature, but you as teacher- if you want us to look at you as a professional- you must remain unemotional. No matter what. But, teachers are dynamic, complex-humans with an emotional investment in their students, job and schools- with that in mind, is this fair to dictate? What if that parent, administrator or colleague is irrational, what if teachers are yelled at, belittled, cajoled, or threatened? Must they smile and take it? If we wouldn’t allow the bully to win in microcosm of our classroom, why should they win in the macrocosm of the extended learning community?
I understand how this happens. Parents pay big money to attend schools and their most prized possession is being left in the hands of another person. They feel they have the right to demand and get satisfaction. But I have written about this before- teaching is a unique profession in which people feel that because they have gone through school, they are experts on how learning takes place. But learning is a little bit of science and a little bit of craft. It is a difficult balance that is unique to each person and that is the wonderful challenge and curse for teachers---finding that sweet spot where each student learns. Becoming a master teacher requires training, and experience. It requires openness to new practice and a willingness to be a life-long learner. Modern education is multifaceted, complex and ever changing. Teachers’ jobs are not easy, but we make sure that we have the training, experience and support to make the best decisions for the learners in our care.
But it's not just parents, working in international schools comes with it’s own unique challenges and benefits. The community is very small and teachers who have been in the industry for a while find that they know people from all over the world; in fact they often have connections on every continent. Directors, principals, colleagues may pop up in any number of future jobs and locations. It is a good thing to maintain open relationships. However, sometimes conflict does arise between members of the learning community and it is necessary to be able to negotiate positive resolutions.
But consider, international teachers are stripped of their safety nets. Their friends and families are continents away, they are left to vent, discuss and problem solve with people that they hardly know. They are left to fend for themselves and to build a reputation each time they move to a new location. This can be difficult and lonely. However, there are specific things that we can do to address conflict resolution and community building within the adult sphere of international education. Underpinning our learning community with the
learner profile is an excellent start to creating and maintaining healthy relationships. To aid in this process, I have created a free PDF to help create a culture of principled action for schools and their learning communities.
As a teacher that works within the construct of the IB, my practice, classroom, and life are underpinned by the learner profile. One of the tenets of the IB Learner Profile is that the privileged have a responsibility to stand up for the rights of the underdog. I take this seriously.
So what can we do if we see a student, teacher, parent, or staff member being bullied?
Look for the signs, ask yourself:
Think! Is this behavior repeated? Does it include:
Communicate! If you answered yes to a few of the above questions, have a quiet conversation with the person you think is being bullied. Ask them what strategies they have used, who they have spoken to, offer support and a listening, non-gossiping ear.
Tell! If you observe the behavior again, or the person who is being bullied seems unable to take action, do the right thing and tell someone! A simple conversation may validate a teacher, give the heads-up to an unknowing principal, or provide support for a struggling parent.
Advocate for open discussion and the creation of an Essential Agreement within your learning community.
Celebrate the positive behaviors you see each day in others! Write a blog, tweet or Facebook post about how great those in your learning community are.
So, what do I know? Who am I to give advice?
I know all this from personal experience. I was Jane. Only I was an adult, a professional, with years of education and experience under my belt. It took two amazing parents who were principled to take a stand, to have that quiet conversation with my administration, and honestly without them, I would've been left feeling ashamed and lost. Instead, I have become a better teacher, and a better advocate for others through my own learning journey. In fact, part of EDucation Publishing's ethos is to help empower youth to take action and make changes in their world.
It's time to end the silence. It's time to recognize that anyone, children and adults, can engage in bully behaviors and anyone can be bullied- it's just a question of what you will do to make it stop.