Friday, November 30, 2012

Bullying: Why are we surprised?

In education circles, there is often a lot of talk about how to prevent and deal with bullying in our schools.  There are anti-bullying programs, trainings for teachers, social-emotional curricula designed to increase empathy.  Teachers are taught how to work with the bullying victim, the bully themselves, and the bystanders who must be encouraged to interevene.

But when I look around at our society, I sometimes wonder why are we surprised that bullying is such a rampant problem in schools?  Do we honestly wish to pretend that this is problem unique to the schoolyard, to our young people who just don't know better?  Or, are we willing to take a long hard look at ourselves, what our society teaches and rewards, and the daily lessons our children learn growing up in an grossly unjust and abusive America?

Think about what a typical child witnesses in their life.  Perhaps they overhear their parent complain about an abusive boss.  They watch as that parent works longer hours for less pay. They see the fear in that parent's eyes knowing that they can never speak up, speak out, fight for better conditions.  There are mouths to feed and bills to pay so the parent has no choice but to return to the abuse day in and day out.  Children feel that tension.

That child, especially an African-American or Latino/a child, leaves that stressful home and walks down the streets towards school. On their way, they observe the police, once again, harassing, accusing, perhaps beating another member of the community.   The child hangs their head low and walks by quickly, the lesson that the police will bully you for little or no reason etched into their brain.  And knowing all too well that a prison cell awaits anyone who resists.

The child arrives at school and sees their teacher welcome them.  She seems tired and frightened.  That child watches the teacher catch her breath as an administrator walks in later that day in a surprise evaluation.  The child hears the nervousness in her voice and watches her forced smiles and fake enthusiasm.  The child sees the administrator scold the teacher, right there in front of the class, for not having the correct words written on the board or paper filed away.  The child knows the dread on their teacher's face as yet another test approaches.  And they know that their teacher has no choice in what she is being asked to do.  Children see it all.

And on some level, children understand who the winners are in our society.  They see their city's mayor on TV, a bona fide bully, continue his bullying towards the child's teachers, relatives, and community members.  They see the billionaire bullies, the political bullies, the business bullies fleece the entire nation's milk-money without so much as a detention.

And we are surprised when children try to exert power over someone less powerful?  That is how the game is played.  That bully, provided he has the right connections and does not have the wrong skin color, will be rewarded for that nasty behavior someday.  Perhaps, he can manage a hedge fund, become a ruthless banker, or even run for office.  Bullying equals "success".

I am not condoning bullying.  As a teacher, I work everyday to teach my students to feel another's pain, to care for their classmates, neighbors, even strangers.  But I also acknowledge where that desire to dominate and be cruel comes from.  It is taught.  Keep fighting bullying, but until we live in a more just and equitable society, don't be surprised when you see it in the schools. 


  1. You are absolutely correct. I tried so hard to teach my students to be respectful and to treat each other to be as fair as possible. My principal would come and treat me with disrespect. She was not fair to her teachers. I had parents who figured out what was going on. I retired early. I couldn't take it any longer. Thanks for speaking out.

  2. Nearly half the country just voted to make president of our nation a guy who led others to gang up on a fellow student and forcibly cut his hair. What does that tell you about how much those people give a sh*t about bullying?

  3. Hear, hear. Your point is well written and spot-on. Everyone today feels it's okay to bully teachers, and yet we're supposed to teach them to not bully. Thank you, Ms. Katie.

  4. This is a crucial point, and if the education "reformers" were honest about their end game, they would have zero public support as in past decades with more honest attempts to gut public education like the push for vouchers in the 80's.