Bullies, Victims, Voices: My Father's Advice

This post was originally shared at the Cooperative Catalyst blog, an amazing gathering of minds on education transformation.
Free Scared Child Alone in the Dark Creative CommonsI hope this post becomes part of a series of posts about what I believe is needed for education transformation. These ideas come from my father. I believe we need leadership like my father to drive educational transformation. He was able to get each of his 5 daughters to graduate from college. In my own blog, I have written about how I grew up in a low-income neighborhood with gang problems and one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state and nation. We were the first generation from both sides of the family to graduate from college and we broke a poverty cycle that existed for generations. My father’s parents had only a 2nd grade education. Many of my family members still live in poverty. To accomplish what my father accomplished takes incredible passion, drive, sacrifice, faith, and discipline. The current education system needs leadership with these qualities. The current education system needs teachers, principals, and other stakeholders with these qualities to inspire this in students.

What My Father Taught Me About Bullying

Part of education transformation is understanding varying perspectives and reflecting on our own experiences as students. We need the ability to empathize with our students and not only step in their shoes but figure out how we can help them take the next step. I believe we sometimes forget the difficulties we faced growing up. Most children are at the stage of trying to be liked by their peers, hormones are developing, and simple name calling can really seem like the end of the world. I remember when I was bullied and contemplated suicide. Many of our students don’t contemplate they do commit suicide, take drugs, become bullies, join gangs, cut themselves, and more. Bullying is one of those difficult situations that every school suffers. Many of our students will have been bullied at least once if not more times throughout their lives. We can show them videos, have them read materials, and so forth but I believe the most powerful examples come from the victims.
As an educator I have been vulnerable with my students and shared with them some personal experiences. Sometimes, I feared the outcome exposing myself to teenagers but I believe when I did this the students responded well. Jim Burke provides an example of this in his post, When the Teaching Gets Too Real. I’m not saying we should do this all the time but there are those moments when sharing an experience helps a student who is facing a difficult situation.
There isn’t a magical solution…
Bullying is one of those difficult situations. Often, there is no magical solution and school policy doesn’t always work. Yes, we should involve both families and have discussions with the bully’s and victim’s parents. Yes, we should let our administrators and counselors know right away. In my experience most parents struggle with dealing effectively with bullying on both ends. The New York Times’ article, As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up, details the experiences of parents dealing with cyberbullying. For the parents in the article it was a long journey to get their children to begin to heal from the experiences. We can’t bandage this problem. When bullying occurs we can’t just leave it to a few conversations. We have to continue the journey.
It’s a hard journey…
My father knew in my neighborhood that if he was going to insist I got perfect grades, attendance, and won academic contests that I would be picked on. In my neighborhood, we were surrounded by gangs. You wouldn’t tell anyone at school your birthday because this meant you were rolled (beat-up) by others. Sure enough when I started kindergarten I met my first bully. She’d pinch me if I didn’t do what she’d say. I went home quite a bit with black eyes. I lived in fear. My father began discussing the issue with me. He warned me there would be more bullies because my oldest sister had been beat up by girls in her high school in the bathroom. When the parents of both bullies suggested we toughen up my father told me, “I can’t raise their children only you.”
He took preventative measures…
He had grown up in a much rougher neighborhood than me and remembered getting jumped by many just walking home. He knew that in order for me to survive he would have to build up my support system. He made sure my friends came from all walks of life. From early on he began to invite many of my classmates on various trips. He’d take them to Chuck E. Cheese, bowling, the beach, pizza parties, and so forth. He would listen as they talked about their school and family problems. He had a 24 hour policy. If any of my friends needed help they could knock on the door or call and he would be there. They sometimes would call at 3am and he would be there. Some of my friends were part of gangs or would fight. They never forced me to do anything, though, because they respected and cared about my father.They knew where he stood on many issues because he’d talk to them about it.
We had tough conversations…
My father was also very good at listening to problems. I felt comfortable speaking to him about any issue drugs, sex, gangs, and so forth. He wasn’t afraid to have these conversations with me. One girl in middle school made my life hell. She was in my PE class and over a foot taller than me. She hated me because my name was Shelly and that was her nickname. She’d kick balls in my face, shove me, call me names, and get other older girls to do the same. I hated going to gym class. Avoiding her didn’t work. We got in the only fight I ever had because I had finally had enough and didn’t care if she beat me up. The PE coach called my parents. My father and I discussed the bullying and we talked to the PE coach who only told my dad she would keep a close eye on the girl. The girl would wait look for me outside of gym class, follow me on my walks home and call me horrible names the entire way. My father told my friends. They warned the girl to stop and their warning ended my nightmare. I was so embarrassed, yet relieved. My father told me then that he knew I would have this problem and knew he would have to build up a support system. He was right!
Victims need a support system..
Victims need more than parents and staff behind them when dealing with a bully. They need friends. They need several others to stick with them. Often a bully thinks they get approval from their gang of friends. They continue bullying because they need to be liked by peers. They often will pick on those who usually are loners or don’t have many friends. This is why having a club or group of students against bullying in a school is important. They can offer support and a voice. They can offer friendship. The club should provide outings or activities related to relationship building, cooperative learning, and team work. They should allow the students to create these events for other students in the school.

Bullies are Victims

Bullies need to be able to see their victims as peers and people. I feel strongly about schools that have students do volunteer work. At the previous school I taught at students had to have 100 hours of approved volunteer work before they graduated. Approved work meant organizations that helped others or animals. In the NY Times article, one parent resulted to buying her bullying daughter a puppy. She said when the daughter began to care about another living being she began to realize the impact of her bullying.
Change the discipline system in schools…
We can’t result to punishing or ostracizing a bullying student. We need to teach bullying students compassion by being compassionate. We need to listen and figure out why the child is bullying another. The problem with the school system is that it is built around punishment. This is the hidden message we send to students- not compassion, but punishment. We need to have school policies that do away with detention, suspension, write-ups, and other typical forms of punishment for every incident. I don’t believe in writing up students. I speak with them first, listen, try to show compassion, and tell them I believe in them to do better. This has never failed me even when a student threw a chair at me. I believe administrators need to change the rule books and encourage their teachers to speak and listen to students. After all, they are children, adolescents, and teenagers. They are supposed to act up. They are supposed to be dramatic. They are supposed to be overemotional. They are supposed to give in to peer pressure. They are supposed to daydream or misbehave when they are bored. What is unnatural is for them to sit in rolls in desks being silent and doing busy work.

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