Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.
I’m a teacher, and I can’t stop bullies.
This is a terrible, horrible admission to make, but it’s true. As much as every seminar on school violence, student suicide, self-esteem and bullying tries to empower me to stop bullying when I see it, I can’t.
Okay, that isn’t entirely true. I can stop some of it, especially in my classroom or from my view of the hallways. When I see a student picking on another student, using language that is offensive, or becoming violent in any way, I can stop it right then and there. Very often, though, especially once students reach high school, bullying doesn’t take place in front of adults who have the ability and authority to stop it. High schoolers are great at hiding mischief, and, in this digital age, most bullying takes place on students’ social media pages rather than out in the open.
I can’t police my students’ social media profiles, nor do I want to. Therefore, unless a student comes to me with a problem, there is often no way of knowing that they are being bulled. Furthermore, the classic signs of bullied students — they stop doing their work, sleep during class because they don’t sleep much at home, etc. — don’t always show. Many students do a great job of putting on a good face in class because they don’t want anyone to know how much they are hurting emotionally. Many bullied students turn around and bully someone else because they just can’t take it anymore.
What is a teacher to do, then, when bullying becomes invisible? The best thing I can come up with is treating the emotional wounds and empowering the bullied student rather than punishing the bully. In fact, in most cases, I believe this is a better way of dealing with bullying than just punishing the offender. The unfortunate nature of bullying is that, if we stop one bully, another is usually lurking around the corner.
For our entire lives, even into adulthood, we deal with bullies on a daily basis. Whether it’s a cat-call on the street, a discriminatory employer, or someone at work who tries to pawn their work off on you, bullies exist outside of the classroom. When there’s no one there to stop it, how do we deal with it? Most of us, as adults, have been able to build up the necessary self-esteem, or ego, to bolster us against such attacks.
Students, however, have not always been afforded that opportunity. We need to give it to them. Instead of focusing on the bully, focus on the bullied. Tell them good things; help show them how awesome they truly are; give them healthy coping mechanisms for handling bullies when they encounter them. That way, when they are bullied — which they will be, without a doubt — they can deal with it without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as harming themselves or worse.
If the best we can do is give students a sense of their self-worth, and make them know that we are proud of who they are as people, we’ve already won a huge part of the fight against bullies. Too often students cite being bullied as a reason for horrible things such as school shootings or suicide. If we can’t always catch the bullies, what we can do is help students realize that their lives are worth something, and that violence — whether against themselves or others — is never the answer.
Photo Credit: trix0r