Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but today, parents and teachers are talking about bullying behavior and its effects on children much more than in previous generations. This heightened awareness around bullying is a good thing. Unfortunately, however, this awareness has come as a result of the now countless number of cases in which bullying victims have lost their lives, either as a direct result of the actions of their bullies, or indirectly through their taking their own lives in attempts to end their pain and suffering.
Few of us will ever forget the 2009 suicide of 11-year old Carl Walker-Hoover, who hung himself with an electric cord while his mother made him a cheeseburger. In that same year, 11-year old Jaheem Herrera hung himself in his closet as his mother cooked dinner. The common thread with both children was that they were both victims of bullying at school. In both cases, the boys were bullied because other children believed them to be gay. These boys are just two of many children whose lives have been lost because of bullying. So while the heightened awareness of bullying is undeniably a good thing, how tragic a commentary that it has taken losing so many precious lives for us to begin to treat the issue with the seriousness that it deserves.
Part of adults’—teachers and parents—nonchalance and inaction with bullying has stemmed from the fact that so many of us grew to see it as a normal, even if unpleasant, part of the childhood experience. In many of our school and childhood experiences, children who had characteristics or qualities that put them outside of average were likely candidates for teasing and bullying. If a child was perceived to be too smart, not smart enough, overweight, underweight, poor, wealthy, gay, or sexually promiscuous (for females), he or she could end up the victim of a bully. And both today and in previous generations, the categories of bully and bullied are not necessarily mutually exclusive ones. In other words, bullies have often been victims of bullying, and bullying victims can sometime turn into bullies. In bullying another child, the bully is often mimicking bullying behavior that she or he has seen or been on the receiving end of.
Few of us have managed to completely avoid being involved in relationships where we were either the bully or a victim of bullying; and for those of us that did manage to avoid direct involvement with bullying relationships, nearly all of us have at least seen it in or schools, in our neighborhoods, or in our homes. I am no exception. So yes, I approach the topic of bullying from the perspectives of a former middle and high school special education teacher, a teacher educator, and an education policy researcher; but also, and just as importantly, I approach the topic of bullying from the perspective of an adult who was once a child involved in unhealthy adolescent bullying relationships.
As adults—teachers—who have been involved in or have witnessed bullying relationships, we must acknowledge how our own experiences, biases, and perceptions around bullying impact the way we understand and respond to bullying in our professional roles. Here are just a few things teachers should keep in mind:
- We all have biases, prejudices, and past experiences that can impact the way we see the world and the way we go about doing our jobs. Teachers are people just like everyone else, with political preferences, religious beliefs, ideologies, etc. But it is important for teachers to do the work of trying to understand their own beliefs, biases, and experiences and how those might impact their understanding of and intervention in bullying situations.
I have seen more than a few instances where teachers’ religious beliefs about sexual orientation, their personal biases and prejudices about racial/ethnic minorities, and their political beliefs about immigration have resulted in their failure to intervene in bullying situations where they clearly should have intervened. Please do not let that happen to you. Not only is such behavior a violation of professional ethics, but it puts the well-being of children in jeopardy.
- Bullying today is not the same as bullying in previous generations of children. Social media has changed bullying significantly. Social media platforms have allowed bullies to attack their victims at any time of the day and from any place. It is no longer necessary for the bully and the victim to be in the same place. Also, bullies are now able to launch anonymous attacks against their victims.
At one time, children could escape the school bully by going home, or even escape the neighborhood bully by staying inside. Children today are unable to escape bullying attacks via social media, and the attacks can happen with the whole class, whole school, or whole town as an audience. The day has passed when the bully’s only audience was bystanders. Now, depending on the platform used, the bully’s audience can be enormous.
- Never assume that a child is tough enough to endure bullying. While some children show their pain outwardly, others hide it very well. In the cases of 11-year old Carl and 11-year old Jaheem, neither of their mothers had any idea that their sons suffered so severely from bullying abuse that they planned to take their own lives.
Yes, these mothers knew that their children had been bullied, and they had even spoken with teachers and administrators about the bullying, but they did not fully understand the amount of pain that their children were experiencing. For teachers, it does not matter if the victim of bullying appears to take the abuse in stride or if it appears to not bother her much, bullying is never acceptable. Teachers must make it their business to intervene whenever bullying is taking place.
Wayne D. Lewis, Jr. is the author of THE POLITICS OF PARENT CHOICE IN PUBLIC EDUCATION. He is an assistant professor and Principal Leadership Program Chair in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky.
© 2013 Wayne D. Lewis. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.