School Climate & Safety Opinion

Can Schools Teach Bullies and Bystanders About Common Ground?

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers — January 02, 2018 4 min read

Schools have always struggled with how to deal with the act of bullying. That struggle has changed as social values and technology change. Now, we have training programs to mitigate these behaviors. Professional development for the adults and assemblies for the students hold lessons in how to recognize and respond to a bully. Witnesses are taught to speak up and not simply be bystanders. Those who exhibit bullying behaviors receive discipline. But, presently, a type of bullying is emerging that drives people to extremes outside of our schools.

Sometimes, bullying is focused on differences between participants, but, fundamentally, as in the case with sexual harassment, differential power is at work. A weaker person is taken advantage of and can become the victim. We see this fundamental interaction play out on adult stages with a bit more sophistication. Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen refer to each other by party affiliation as if those party names have become bad words. It has become unthinkable for a Democrat to agree with the Republicans and visa versa. The POTUS personifies that strength is good and weakness in any form is bad. Strength is to be admired and respected. Weakness is to be disdained and mocked. While the positive side of these messages may not be harmful, the flip side becomes the problem. Our role as educators is to give hope and help as all become learners. If we are successful, all become worthy of admiration and respect. These qualities ought not to be scarce nor are they the domain of those with the most money or power or physical prowess.

We hold little hope for this social change right now. Yielding power over each other is moving toward an extreme not seen in our nation for decades. What is missing on the national scene is an understanding that our representatives represent all of us, not just the ones who happen to possess power in the moment. It seems that as the more liberal who support helping everyone, government programs, and inclusion, failed to attend to the ‘other side’ when they were in charge. Now with the more conservative in charge, the same closed mind. Power wielding has become a norm. And here we are. Compromise is a dirty word if one can win, why not go for it all even if, in so doing, we leave many behind?

Bullies and Schools’ Response

Our sphere of influence, however, is an environment in which we can effect the way developing children learn how to have disagreements, different values and opinions and find the way to remain accepting and welcoming, to find common ground.

Social change moves slowly. The history of female and black Americans can teach us that. Along the way there are fits and starts, demonstrations, changes in laws, arrests, books and articles, and enough of a majority of society has either changed the way we think about others or respect that change. We are in a difficult time. Most of us have no frame of reference for addressing the localization of these issues. The polarization of sides, beliefs, and values are extreme. We are called, as educators, to stay awake and become aware of what is happening outside of school walls. Why? Because we have a responsibility within the school walls.

Where to Begin?

In this terrible time of disagreement and political bullying among adults, we are gifted a 3D, larger than life, daily movie that reveals the actions of bullies and the responses of the victims. Now is a time for schools to return to thinking about the bullies in their midst. Now is the time to understand better the source of the actions of the bullies and the responses of the adults I the school community. Now is the time to think about power and how it is used in schools, whether teacher to student or administrator to teacher or school personnel to parents and community. Are we in the business of wielding power, hiding behind laws and mandates and policies? We also want to consider how we send messages and what they are as we interact with students daily. We can lead the way, and help children develop as flexible thinkers who understand the purpose and value of finding common ground among our differences.

It Begins With the Leaders

When teachers are working in an environment where leaders, themselves, can find and create common ground among conflicting perspectives, we are modeling for everyone in the community. Power is not held at the top and wielded over others but is part of a system of shared knowledge where all contribute to creating and maintaining classroom environments in which the children are co-creators of the learning environment. Simply put, they build classrooms where “Because I said so” is not a phrase children will hear.

Then there are those children who choose to use bullying behaviors to meet their own needs. We need to develop alternative pathways for them. We need to explore from where does that behavior arises and how can we intercede? We have to ask ourselves if punishment is effective. Bullying is about the abuse of power. Those who possess power are those who can teach the difference between use and abuse, between hurting and helping, between service and diminishment. Here, schools can make a difference. School leaders and teachers can make a difference. And, as they do, the next generation will be learning.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo by Alexis_Fotos courtesy of Pixabay

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