Every October, schools and organizations across the country join in observing National Bullying Prevention Month. The intention is to stop bullying and cyber bullying by increasing awareness of the impact of bullying on all children of all ages. Schools have long been places where children learn about bullying by being victims or bystanders or bullies; now they are becoming places where bullying is quelled. Schools are increasingly places where awareness and recognition of what bullying is and what it feels like move from lessons into actions. Schools have become places where bullying is clearly defined as hurtful and harmful and it receives the disciplinary attention it deserves.
The examples from which children learn extend far beyond school walls. We live in a society that is still divided about bullying and its impact and appropriateness. It is true in adult workplaces as well as in the media and in politics. But, our role here is unique. The responsibility educators have to keep children safe within the school walls has become compounded by our responsibility to help prepare students for their lives as adults. We, through these students, create future cultural norms.. Do teachers use their power and position to bully their students? Do leaders use their power and position to bully their teachers, students, or parents? These are questions to consider when keeping the discussion open within schools. There are times when the one accused of bullying has no conscious intention of bullying, but the result of the words or actions, in fact, is received as bullying.
The leaders’ role is first and foremost to be keenly aware not only of the definition of bullying, but of how to recognize it in the interactions between and among adults and children. StopBullying.gov defines bullying as follows:
Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not to be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
Verbal and social bullying are not as easily recognizable as one might think. A teacher greets a student in the hall with, “Here comes trouble!” A principal exposes a teacher’s vulnerability in a faculty meeting, an adult spreads rumors about students or colleagues; all can go on under the radar and be easily ignored. It is the responsibility of the adults, to each other and to the students to remain alert and aware while committing to avoid the commission of these bullying behaviors...not this month, every month.
It is a Matter of Culture
It is a matter of culture and changing culture is a very difficult thing.
Sometimes cultures are so entrenched that change for the better seems impossible. Cultural change is not an exact science; it is messy, unpredictable, and often, uncomfortable (Gruenert & Whitaker. p. 123).
But it is culture that must change if bullying is be recognized, addressed, and reduced. As with all things, leadership is everything. “Everything that happens in an organization reflects the leadership” (Gruenert & Whitaker p. 162). Placing signs on walls and enforcing rules are helpful and serve as reminders that we are paying attention. But unless the values and culture of the environment shifts with the model of the leader, these will remain signs and policies to be read and followed. Hearts and minds will not change.
The Superintendent and Principal as Moral Leaders
Rather than approaching bullying through a month of awareness, signs on the wall that reflect policies enforced, leaders can build a covenant.
When purpose, social contract, and local school autonomy become the basis of schooling, two important things happen. The school is transformed from an organization to a covenantal community, and the basis of authority changes, from an emphasis on bureaucratic and psychological authority to moral authority. To put it another way, the school changes from a secular organization to a sacred organization, from a mere instrument designed to achieve certain ends to a virtuous enterprise (Sergiovanni. p. 102).
Recognizing insensitivity and hurtful behavior begins with ourselves. We develop the acute ears and eyes to listen for racial and gender slurs, for the name calling that hurts, for the isolation that prevents belonging, for the laughter that mocks and the contact that offends. Then, joining with others, we openly commit to demonstrating value for everyone in the organization. It is an unmistakable leadership action that will truly contribute to an environment of respect. These are the environments in which we want to work. These are the environments in which children will learn best, all months, not just this one.
Gruenert, S. & Whitaker, T. (2015). School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.
Sergiovanni, T.J. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.