I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years and in that time, I’ve had a lot of great moments. These great moments give me fuel and sustain my effort. I’ve experienced agonizing moments as well. These are the times that raise the bar, test my resolve, and push me into the “groan zone.” These are the times when I usually learn a lot about teaching.
Once, in the not too distant past, I had a group of students who, for the most part, were highly capable and had good social skills. I occasionally had a few issues with some of the boys in the group arguing, but it wasn’t anything “serious”. So, the year went along beautifully. I was doing my job, the kids were learning, and we were all so happy and productive. Or so it seemed to me.
It came to my attention, through a child’s parent, that one of the boys in my class had created a web page that basically trashed their son. The site contained the standard bullying comments such as “I hate you” and “Billy is so stupid”. There were some comments that were stronger, but those were limited. The website had only been accessed by three people, the creator, another student whom had been invited to the website, and of course, the child being bullied. The bullied child’s parent notified me after their son had informed them.
To my dismay, we determined that two students had actively posted to the site for a long period of time, around 2 months. It didn’t take much in the way of tech forensics to figure out who the culprits were and how many times they had accessed the website, and so we began the process of sorting through the facts. All parents and administrators were cooperative and supportive throughout the events that followed. Our school counselor came on board, and as a group, we came up with an action plan to address the situation. The website was taken down, the offending students were disciplined, and a series of follow-up sessions with the school counselor was scheduled.
So, I began to wonder, what, as an educator, had I done to prevent this from happening. These kids had all the guidance sessions regarding bullying and how to be constructive community members. All of these students had signed our Acceptable Use Policy. We had group agreements that addressed this type of behavior. I’m sure that at least 2 of our class meetings had focused on some content that could be applied to this situation….and on, and on. Perhaps there had been some signals, though nothing overt. Still, it happened.
The bottom line was that two students were making inappropriate comments about their classmate in order to make that person feel bad. We determined that there were some motivating factors behind the incident. Regardless, this behavior is unacceptable. As humans sharing this planet, we may not agree with what others say and do, but it is our obligation to be respectful and tolerant individuals.
Bullying Has Little Resonance With Teenagers by Danah Boyd offered some interesting insight on the subject. Boyd points out that to teens in today’s world, attention is attention, whether it be good or bad. She also points out that the problem is not the technology. Websites and social media are not exacerbating the problem, but are simply recording it when it happens, so that it is more visible. Boyd stresses that today’s youth are not observing the best role models in the adult world, either. Adult drama is a part of every family, and television and movies are inundated with the same. She contends that we need to find ways to help students build empathy and help them become more aware of significant escalation in social situations, and then work on ending the patterns associated with bullying. She also points out that we need to create an environment for students where negative attention is not considered a validation.
As for my agonizing moment, I felt it was handled well. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, and parents gained a lot from the experience. I learned that even kids who are “highly capable with good social skills” might be motivated to bully, for whatever reason. It’s no surprise that even when we do all of the things that we think we are supposed to do, bullying still occurs. The biggest “take away” for me was that, we are not in control most of the time, and that’s a good thing. Teachers cannot take on the roles of protector and punisher. The best we can do is try to understand situations as they arise and continue to build empathy and respect among our students. Electronic devices are not the problem. Schools that are building cultures to embrace technology as an educational tool can face this complex issue head-on by working to understand why it happens and by addressing issues as they arise within their community of learners.