Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Classroom Bully Pulpits; When The Bully is The Teacher.

Bullying is a problem that affects all of our children - those who bully, those who are victimized, and those who are witnesses to interpersonal violence on either an emotional or physical level.

"Statistics on the rates of bullying and cyber-bullying vary between studies due to the measures used, the questions asked, and the population studied. However, the general consensus is that one out of three children are bullied at school, in the neighborhood, or online and that one out of three children bully others.

Additionally, the rates of bullying vary considerably across countries. Approximately 9% to 73% of students reported that they have bullied another child, and 2% to 36% of students said that they were the victim of bullying behaviors. When young people, aged 11, 13 and 15 were asked to report on their experiences with bullying and victimization within the preceding two months, prevalence rates ranged from 1% to 50% across 25 countries in Europe and North America" ( ).

As a psychologist I've watched anxiously as this long time behavior in our schools has appropriately been singled out for necessary change.  I believe we are on the verge of getting it right, now that our understandings go past the proverbial bully and victim and encompass the wider reality that there are bullies, victims, enablers (the rest that watch and quietly support it through inaction) and others who, through social castigation, help fill the ranks of both bullies and victims.

There is however, a major element missing from this equation.  What about the classroom teacher who openly bullies in the classroom through emotional intimidation and ridicule?  I bring this up after once again listening to the story of a High School client who came to my office because of what she and her parents identified as depression.  I wish I had kept track all these years of the vast numbers of kids such as this client, who are and were honor students, good athletes and by all outward appearances, strong kids, who inside are being emotionally crushed under the weight of fear at school.  Before you go off half cocked, no I am not saying all High School teachers are bad in some way, nor am I saying a large number of them are.  What I am saying is that there seem to be some teachers in every school whose classroom conduct includes openly belittling and degrading students who fail to live up to expectations or are the source of other classroom disturbances.  I am also saying that I fear this is more than just one or two bad apples, so to speak.  Judging by one such incident that was the subject of a recent Today Show story ( ) things may be worse than anticipated.

Science tells me that before I open my mouth about how to fix this perceived problem, I need to know how much of a problem this is.  My gut tells me that accurately measuring the number of bullies in any school that hold the title of teacher and thus classroom leader, is far from an easy task.  The applied practitioner part of me says that my job is not so much to find out how many bullies there are, masquerading as teachers, as it is to find a positive solution for those affected.  In fact I've done a good deal of that in my years working with and supporting children and adolescents simply trying their hardest to navigate an otherwise none to reinforcing context known as the school system.

I got wise through 4 years experience as a H.S. Board member and have tried to incorporate that experience ever sense.  I started by looking at those kids who did well in school in my attempt to understand how to navigate the system.  What I found was children and adolescents who did the best seemed to have the inside track in understanding how to best help the system work for them.  One of the first things I noticed was that those parents and/or kids who openly and frequently supported the system, seemed to receive the most benefit.  Likewise, those parents and/or kids who openly rebelled against the system were often the ones most at odds with the system and the teachers within.  The degree to which one is at odds with the system says much about who is either likely to be bullied or is likely to have a history of being bullied.

It may be self evident but it is far easier to start by being supportive than it is to go from rebellion to support of the system.  In fact I'm not sure one can functionally make the change to support and actually receive the benefit?  It may be that once one is identified as a non-supporter, no amount of change will alter the initial label of non-supporter.

I also know that paying attention to what your son or daughter has to say about how their teachers treat students is a very good idea.  It can certainly offer valuable insights into how they are being treated.  Even if it is more their perception than reality, the perception is important.  Do not assume that bullying in school is a student versus student problem and be open to the possibility that the bully may be an adult who is also the leader of the classroom.