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Is There a Bully in the Room?

August 29, 2012

“Bullying” is the new buzzword in schools these days.  Teachers are now required to take anti-bullying training sessions before the school year begins, and kids watch educational videos on how to deal with bullies.  Bullies, as we all know, are a very serious threat, but they can be rooted out and destroyed fairly easily because they are easy to spot.  They usually look something like this:


                 male bully                                                              female bully

Once you spot a bully, all you have to do is put a circle with a cross through it over him or her, like so:

Once you do that, you can resume classroom activities as normal.

I don’t want to sound as if I’m mocking the new bullying awareness campaigns that are taking place in schools across the country.  I think it’s great that teachers and kids now have a vocabulary and some strategies to use when addressing this age-old problem.  But I am concerned that mere familiarity with the issue may not actually make kids more likely to use these strategies when it really matters.  They seem to know the material by heart, but they aren’t always applying it.

I am not one of those people who will tell you that “Kids will be kids” and that there is nothing that can be done about bullying because it is in human nature.  That’s a terribly defeatist attitude, and I refuse to take it.  But I do want to figure out how to teach the idea of bullying in a way that’s more conducive to actually stopping it.

When I taught fifth grade last year, all of my kids knew what bullying was.  In fact, one of the most popular complaints that kids would make to me on the playground was, “So-and-So is bullying me!”  At first, the use of the word “bullying” would concern me, until I realized that in most cases, this was just another form of tattle-taling.  But how to know where to draw the line between tattle-taling and a child trying to report a real case of bullying?  That’s the tricky part.

Unfortunately, what I discovered last year was that the real bullying was not being reported to me at all.  The boys who were being bullied (and all by the same person) were more interested in being tough and maintaining a “boy code.”  They did not want to be snitches.  And to make matters even worse, the real bully was as charming as they come, especially when he was around adults.  I would never have known if one of the victims hadn’t snapped one day on the playground and started a fist fight with the boy who was bullying him.  He revealed everything that night to his mother, but at that point, it was too late.  Now this victim had become a “bully” himself by verbally and physically assaulting the other boy.  His credibility was shot.

Whispers of other examples of bullying from the first boy came to me throughout the year from parents, but it was frustratingly never in a form I could use to hold this boy accountable.  Many parents said things like, “Oh, please don’t tell anyone I told you that!  My son would just die if he knew I had told a teacher!”  I felt completely helpless.  I watched and listened, but without cooperation from the victims, there was nothing I could do.

The problem with eliminating bullying is that real bullying is often very difficult to detect.  Hint: bullies don’t actually look or act like they do in the videos.  The bully in my class last year did not get ratted out, because he was bullying people who were supposed to be his friends.  He did not look like the cartoon character of a bully with a frowning face and a crew cut.  He was handsome, athletic, funny, charming, and affable.  Though the boys in the class knew that the things he was saying were hurtful, they did not think of themselves as the victims of bullying in this case.

And yet this boy (we’ll call him Casey) was actually the textbook case of a bully.  He did a very effective job of isolating his victims so that they felt that they were alone in being taunted by him.  Almost every boy in the class had been hurt by him at some point, but they never quite seemed to get together with each other to discuss this.  Because Casey was always there.  And everyone wanted to be in his good graces.  And ratting Casey out would have been social suicide, or so they felt.  Even the parents felt this way, as was evidenced by their hesitance to tell me about the bullying and their insistence that I not do anything about it.  And yet I wonder, if the boys could have seen how widespread this bullying was, would they have felt less isolated and more empowered?

As for Casey himself, in typical bully fashion, he was hard to dislike because of what a wounded bird he himself was.  He had never done well in school.  His confidence was unbelievably low, especially for a child with his abilities.  Rumor had it that his father was overly harsh with him.

I don’t know what I could have done as a teacher to solve the problem of Casey’s bullying.  But I do think that if they had banded together, the students could have shut him down, even without help from an adult.  What I would like to understand is, why, when students are educated about bullying, is it so hard for them to recognize it in real life?

One suggestion that I have is that we need to get rid of the stereotyped cartoon bully.  When young children see these pictures of bullies, they do not understand that this is a stereotype.  They look around their classroom and think, “We don’t have any bullies here” because they do not see any giant, thick-eyebrowed kids with fists the size of t-bone steaks.

More effective than stereotyping would be real-life stories from teachers and parents and older kids about real bullying.  If I were to tell my class about a real boy I went to school with who was picked on for being short, these kids could brainstorm strategies about what this boy could have done to stop the bullying.  Now that I work at a different school, I might even tell them the story of Casey and have them figure out what my boys could have done differently.  Real life examples that have actually happened to adults or older kids would bring the idea home.  Without this real life connection, a bully is only a fairytale creature, and by the time they’re really bullying each other, kids are usually too old to believe in fairies.


From → education

  1. This is great advice! I also often ask my students to write their own stories about times when they have felt left out or hurt–this helps them identify what (or who) makes them feel that way so that they can avoid being in those situations later one.

    • Good idea! I bet that if they’re writing about it, rather than speaking about it out loud, it gives them more of a chance to reflect and be honest. I also want to brainstorm ways in which kids can recognize themselves when they are being bullies. It’s so much easier to recognize when you yourself are hurt than when you hurt somebody else. (Casey, ironically, was always telling on people for bullying him.) Will reflect and post on that next. Thanks for the thoughts!

  2. That’s a great idea! And a good point. I think the major reason kids don’t report bullying is that they fear to lose face if they do.

    When I was in elementary school, we had a bully a bit like Casey in our class. She was a fairly confident and out-going girl. All the girls wanted to be her friends and all the boys were in love with her, so she had a lot of influence in the class. She was really cruel. She and her two best friends bullied everyone but it took me years and years to figure out I wasn’t her only victim!

    • Thanks for responding! Yes, I agree that kids don’t report bullies for fear of losing face. But I don’t necessarily want kids to rely on adults to stop their bullying problems. Banding together with other kids is a much more effective strategy. It seems like we have to figure out how to get kids to communicate to with each other better when they are being bullied. It’s the feeling of isolation that allows the bullying to be successful.

      • I don’t know…. I wouldn’t necessarily trust kids to handle these things on their own. I’m afraid it might easily lead to mob justice. Of course, I would still gladly advise them to talk to each other if they are bullied so that the bully can’t isolate the victims – but I would want them to tell adults, too.

      • Yes, I would definitely hope that they would at least let an adult know what’s going on, even if they don’t want direct adult intervention. At the very least, adults might be able to give them some good advice for handling the situation themselves.

        There is something to be said for kids learning to work things out amongst themselves (with good adult support). Bullying is only possible if the bully is either tacitly or openly allowed to do his/her bullying. If the bully’s peer group makes it clear that the bullying is unacceptable, the bullying will stop.

        This is a life lesson which the kids would not learn if the bully were just suspended from school by the adults. What happens when the bully comes back to school? What happens when you meet the bully when there are no adults around? We need to be teaching kids how to stand up for themselves and for their peers so that they can do it when we’re not around.

  3. Oh yeah, now I see what you meant by letting the kids “band together” against the bully. It wasn’t about lynch mobs at all. 🙂 Sorry I got the wrong idea!

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