The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.


Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. As the substitute for my mother-in-law, I spent the day trying to keep out of the way of the student teacher, who has one more week to go before her full take-over in the classroom is over and her supervising teacher can resume teaching (at least part of the time). I have to admit: it is hard to do that.

Especially when there are students in the classroom who don’t understand the weight of their poor choices.

Especially especially when those poor choices lead to bullying of others.

Much like my Internet friend Edna Lee, I hate bullying. In fact, I do not hesitate to say that there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can possibly happen in a classroom that makes me more furious than when I see or even hear about bullying. And it isn’t just because I was bullied throughout my public education career, although that is surely a part of it. It is because the very idea that there are young people who think it is acceptable to insult, harass, tear down, mock, and/or physically injure someone who is thought to be “weaker” than they are makes me sick. It is inexcusable on every level. It makes me boil inside to hear someone say, “Oh, they are just being boys” or “Oh, you know, boys will be boys” or “Oh, it is just a phase–she’ll grow out of it” or “I don’t see why you are so upset; after all, this has been happening for decades. It is a part of growing up.”

I am going to say right now that that is the biggest load of nonsensical crap that I have ever heard in my life. And if you happen to be someone who has said those words in your life, I hope you’ll stop to think about what you are saying, and I hope you’ll erase the phrases from your vocabulary. Bullying is never acceptable. It is never a part of growing up. It is never a rite of passage. It is mean, it is spiteful, and it is evil.

The worst part of it is that, as a substitute teacher, I rarely recognise bullying, because I am not around the students nearly long enough to catch what they are doing. Most bullying is not done in front of teachers, and it isn’t done in an ostentatious way. But every now and I then I am around long enough to realise what it going on. And then the brakes are hit, fast and hard. There is absolutely no tolerance in Mr. Valencic’s classroom for bullying.

So this morning the students were starting a chemistry lesson when some student said something to someone else. I honestly did not hear it, but the student teacher did. And she did exactly what was needed: she slammed the brakes and she put a stop to it. She had already been planning a minilesson on bullying for the afternoon, but it got bumped up to the beginning of the day right quick. She talked to the class about expectations and about the problem with bullying, even when it is just what the students think of as “harmless name-calling.” I remember growing up and hearing kids repeat this idiotic adage time and again: “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I am so glad to see signs that counter it. My personal adaptation is this: “Sticks and stones may break the bones, but words will crush the spirit.”

The university supervisor was there this morning to observe the student teacher and she even jumped in with some comments about bullying. (For those who may not know, university supervisors almost never say anything to anyone other than the teachers in the room.) She pointed out to the class that bullying is illegal; it is harassment, and they can go to jail for it. (Technically, Illinois only has laws requiring all schools to have anti-bullying policies as outlined by the State. Unless I am misreading the law, there is currently no criminal penalty for bullying, although there are penalties for harassment, which is the umbrella crime under which bullying would fall.) She also informed the students that there is a case in Urbana right now in which several students have been arrested in response to a severe case of bullying.

Will the bullying in the classroom stop? Maybe not. Will the teachers and administrators make a much more concerted effort to respond swiftly and appropriately to all claims of bullying? I think they will. In the meantime, I hope and pray that parents all over the nation will do everything they can to support to anti-bullying policies in schools and actively work toward teaching their children appropriate behaviour toward one another.

(And yes, I did have to be more involved as the day went on, just so that there was an extra pair of eyes keeping watch for inappropriate behaviour.)


6 responses

  1. I am glad you posted on this subject because it is a subject that I have pondered long and hard in my heart for decades. When I was a youngster in school I was repeatedly bullied by the children around me. They punched me, kicked me, knocked me down, spat in my face, stole my bicycle, chased me, swore at me, threw rocks at me, threw my books in front of on-coming cars, tossed my book bag out of the school bus window, wiped my band music in dog excrement, held me down and struck me repeatedly in the face, and called me names, one of which entered into general usage in the school hallways and was so insulting and demeaning that I will never repeat it to anyone—it will go with me to the grave. These acts of violence and harassment took place on school property, at the bus stop, in the neighborhood around my house, in my front yard, and even in the doorway to my house. Not only that but my father was physically abusive, and it was not unknown for me and my mother and siblings to be screamed at, cursed, beaten, kicked, slapped, punched, and slammed into the wall so hard it left a body-sized indentation in the drywall. In short, growing up I had no place I could feel truly safe from physical and emotional violence.

    My response to this treatment was perhaps not the wisest of all responses, but it was the best I could do in an environment where I was unprotected and left without counsel, advice or support from friends, school officials, teachers, or parents. I became a smartass. Very early in my life I developed an ability to use words and I used them to retaliate against my enemies, to hurt and to humiliate as best I could. Yes, you may nod your head sagely and say, “well, see what verbal bullying got you?” but it is my opinion that I was woefully bested in a war I neither understood nor wanted. I was not physically strong or coordinated, but I refused to submit to my attackers. I fought back the best I could. I managed on two occasions in my life to beat up kids who were smaller and weaker than I was, because that was how I was treated. One of these kids was my best friend both before and after our fight. The other was the kid who stole my Frisbee. I do not defend those events, but I lived in circumstances that compelled violent action.

    If you looked solely at my behavior: smarting off, name-calling, and punching kids littler than I was, you would certainly have to call me a bully. But would I deserve the same judgment as the other children who attacked me, some of them repeatedly over several years? I think not. Zero tolerance for bullying is a misguided policy because first, it ignores the social power structures that exist among children and which adults may see and understand imperfectly; and second it does not acknowledge gradations of interpersonal violence and pressure between individuals. Ideally, it would be great if children got along and respected each other, but we know that is not always going to be the case. Many pressures on children originate with social, economic and historical forces we can’t mitigate or control. Poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, war, violent media, and so on, all shape a child’s use of and response to violence. I am sure that my life in the 1960s was shaped in part by my father’s service in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, in part by his PTSD, and in part by the low income neighborhood where we lived, and a host of other forces acting upon the families of that time and place.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I am happy that you and other educators are apparently more sensitive to bullying in this time period than 40 years ago, but I would urge you not to call every action “bullying” because some of that violence might be in self-defense. It might be retaliation for actions you did not see or hear about. It might be an expression of forces in the child’s life that we can do little to solve. It might be the action of a child who has had no other example or model in his life to refer to for how to deal with other children who exert pressure, assert power, or act with dominance over him. I am not excusing violence; I am merely asking that educators (and the legal system) look deeper into situations before condemning every child who has acted abusively to the label of bully. Now that bullying is more legally defined, it is imperative that authority NOT steamroll over every child who called a name or swung his fist. That child might, in fact, be more victim than bully.

    Also, while you rightly don’t care for people’s excuses, they reflect some important truths about bullying which I hope you will acknowledge, even if you don’t like the excuses. Boys tend to be more aggressive. Children sometimes have troubled periods when they are more aggressive than at other times. This kind of behavior has existed for years: childhood was even more violent in earlier centuries than it is currently. And it is a part of growing up. I doubt there are many children who have not experienced some kind of action that clearly indicates their place in a group, whether violent, abusive or not. I am not a child psychologist, nor am I an educator of children, but as a father I can say most definitely that conflict is a part of life. Conflict is always a part of life. How people respond to the conflict is very telling: do they crumble? Do they retaliate? Do they seek to understand it? Do they avoid it? Do they learn to use it? Much of what constitutes bullying has to be found in the response. I can call you a retard and if you think of the term as an endearing jocular phrase between friends you won’t be hurt by it. If you for whatever reason take offense or let it crush you in some way, the word becomes more dangerous. Bullying, I would therefore posit, does not happen in a vacuum; neither is it a singularity. Rather, it exists between people and should be evaluated as an event among individuals more than the action of a single person against or toward another single person.

    An aside: I will even go so far as to point out (humbly and with great kindness in my heart toward you, personally) that your politically correct insistence that we not use certain phrases constitutes a form of rhetorical bullying. You seek willy nilly to censor my speech when you make such statements. For that matter, for an adult to imply to fifth graders that their actions will potentially get them put in jail is also a form of rhetorical bullying. Both calls for censorship and implied threats by authority figures are designed to create shame and fear, and what is more bully than that? Also, while I’m off track I want to ask: if you think “sticks and stones” is idiotic, would you prefer “I’m rubber, you’re glue” as a healthier response to name calling?

    Finally, let me repeat I am not defending bullying, but I am calling for a more reasonable and nuanced response to it from those who seek to define and eradicate it. Perhaps the best way to stop bullying in the classroom or in any other environment is to foster mutual respect and happiness within the community. I have a class of students this semester in which there is one student (again, these are 19-20 year olds) who is slower than the others. Potentially he could have become the object of real abuse from his classmates, one of whom is extremely vocal about his likes and dislikes (and very conservative), but in the course of our time together the material we’ve discussed has been challenging and inspiring, and I’ve witnessed many occasions when the other students have rallied around the slower student and helped him. Not only that, but they’ve drawn him in to their out-of-class circle. They have made him their friend. I believe that is the result, at least in part, of the positive and happy environment during my class, which reinforces respect for all intertwined with a focus on the content material. It has been one of my most enjoyable experiences to watch this unfold.

    I believe that what I have witnessed in my class holds a key for combating bullying. If the content is delivered with joy, if teaching truly becomes an act of love, and if the success of one becomes the interest of all, then I think bullying becomes impossible because a social order of a different sort has come into being. In fact, that may be the ultimate key to the entire issue: we need to know our place and be valued within our place. If we are uncertain of our place, we may use force to reinforce our position vis a vis others—but we may also use more constructive tools (helping peers, inviting all into the circle, etc.) to achieve the same consequence. The implication of this thought for teachers and administrators is that a “swift response” to bullying is already too late to do anything but react to the problem. To solve the problem of bullying it may be necessary to redefine entirely how you teach and how you create an environment in the classroom that discourages bullying—and that will of course require a great deal of creativity, innovation and latitude. Is that even possible with the district’s and state’s curriculum and testing jackboots on your necks? I wonder.

    April 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm

  2. I appreciate your thoughtful response. I would have left this until tomorrow but, alas, there is no way I am going to get any sleep tonight until I clear my head.

    First off, I believe you and I are operating under two very different definitions of bullying. According to the US Department of Justice, bullying is “a form of abuse. It comprises repeated acts over time that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power with the more powerful individual or group abusing those who are less powerful.”

    The key word there is repeated. Conflict, in and of itself, is not bullying. When someone acts out of aggression, that is not bullying. When someone speaks out of anger, that is not bullying. That is just a poor choice. When a boy in a class punches another kid because the second kid wouldn’t leave him alone, that isn’t bullying – that is choosing a poor response. So let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that all aggressive behaviour is considered equal in the eye of the law (whether criminal law or the law of the school).

    There is no doubt that you were bullied by both your peers and your father. PTSD notwithstanding, he was a bully. Sadly, though, your response to bullying is a textbook response: you became a bully in order to distract the bullies from you and direct them to a new target. There are scores of studies done on this very thing, and books out the wazoo. The abused becomes the abuser. True, you (perhaps) felt it was your only recourse, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. I wonder: how often did you report your tormentors to school authorities? Did it occur to you to do so? One of the greatest problems that authorities face today in regards to bullying is that the victims don’t report it or, if they do, they report one case and ignore all the others. In order to respond appropriately, though, the victim needs to report every single incident every single time.

    There is a boy in the class I was teaching today who has been bullied throughout his school career. This is just now coming to light, and school authorities are working to correct the situation. But when he turns around and calls people names on a regular, frequent basis, then yes, he is corrected, as well. This is where the zero tolerance policy comes into play. Zero tolerance does not mean that there is equal punishment. The consequences for poor behaviour have to be appropriate; that is, the boy who repeatedly calls someone a bad name is not going to receive the same level of punishment as the boy who repeatedly corners someone in the hall and punches him in the gut in order to steal his lunch money. But neither situation is going to be tolerated, and all instigators are going to be made aware of the inappropriateness of their actions and the response if they continue.

    As far as your claim to rhetorical bullying: when I tell students that it is illegal, I am not being a bully; I am stating a fact: I have seen numerous cases in just the past few weeks of students being arrested, tried, and placed into juvenile detention centers as a direct result of bullying others. Again, I’m not talking about isolated acts of aggression. I am talking about persistent harassment of another, whether it be social, emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical. The behaviour has to be persistent in order to qualify under the criteria of the criminal justice system. But when students are indeed bullying each other, they need to know that there are real world consequences for their actions.

    Also: I do not censor you. I exhort, I encourage, I plead, but I do not force. There is no imposition of my will on your own. If I express that a certain phrase is offensive, I would hope that you, as a decent human being, would not purposely be offensive, just as I do not intend to be offensive toward others. As an educator, it is my responsibility to properly model a bazillion different things for my students, one of which is good citizenship. It is a part of my job, as an employee of the community and of the state, to model those behaviours which we, as a community, embrace. When it comes to language choice, I am the first to tell students that we use different kinds of language in different settings. So I teach the students that, while in the classroom, we speak to each other in a way that we probably would not speak to each other while at home. And, following my egalitarian views, I work with my class to establish a constitution of what is expected.

    Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with the entirety of your two concluding paragraphs! Bullying cannot be overcome by reacting. Reacting is merely the result of the sad reality that bullying still exists. What educators need to do is two-fold: a) create an environment where bullying is not tolerated by the entire student body and b) create a meaningful plan of action to respond to the times when bullying slips through the cracks.

    I would like to think that bullying has decreased in our society or, at the very least, the acceptability of it has, but I think we have a long way to go before it is no longer a concern at all.

    April 26, 2011 at 10:58 pm

  3. uummm… I just wanted to say Thanks, Alex, but now I feel that’s not enough words for this comment section. Let me try it anyway:

    Thanks, Alex!


    April 28, 2011 at 8:23 am

  4. Oh, come now, Edna. Don’t let my bombast intimidate you. Alex is immune to it by now, I’m sure.

    April 28, 2011 at 11:28 pm

  5. Looks to me like Alex relishes it!

    You two play nice now.

    May 1, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    • The Margin Wight is my father-in-law, and we tend to engage in excessively wordy debate when it comes to education. Trust me, there is no expectation that others be as loquacious as we are! 🙂

      May 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm

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