Uprooting Subtle forms of Bullying

My October 16th blog post, “Bad Person,” on the subject of bullying, sparked an interesting discussion on Facebook. I mentioned how hard it is, especially by the middle school level, for teachers to “catch” bullies in the act.  However, I have focused on this issue as I taught this week, and I was able to catch two situations which, while I don’t believe were intended as bullying, could still have resulted in a student feeling marginalized or put down by peers. These two situations happen in most likely every classroom. I know that they happened almost daily when I was in grade school.

The first issue occurs when giving wait time to allow a student to puzzle out an answer. My discussions are in Socratic Seminar format, where we sit around a table and discuss open-ended questions about their reading. Some students take longer to process and formulate an answer. During this time, others eager to participate begin to squirm in their seats and wave their hands in the air at me as if I have suddenly gone blind. If the wait time continues, some students will whisper their answer or start to make noises to get my attention. I admit that in grade school, I was one of the latter group of students. I would raise my hand, wave it, and commence groaning if the wait time was too long-too long being about 15 seconds. I had no idea how obnoxious my behavior was, nor did I fathom how rotten I was making the student feel who needed time to think about her response.

In order to ameliorate this situation, we had a short class meeting, and we instituted a policy that, “If one person has the right to speak, the rest of us may not raise hands or call out answers until the person has finished speaking.” We resolved to work on our active listening skills, and we discussed how important it is to listen to others instead of just holding our own response at the forefront of our minds. I hope this strategy works. I’ll let you know.

The other issue involves tattling as bullying. A quick search of ERIC educational resources database and Google Scholar revealed copious amounts of research on tattling in the preschool and primary grades, but very little on the secondary level. In a nutshell-tattling is revealing information to a teacher or person of authority in order to get another person IN trouble, while telling is revealing information to get another OUT of danger. While reporting bullying, both verbal and physical, falls firmly in the “telling” camp, “tattling” itself can be a form of bullying. Here is a link to a good article about this difference.

For example, when I returned student’s vocabulary tests this week, one boy’s hand shot up in the air, and he proclaimed loudly and smugly that his neighbor had changed the grade from a minus to a plus. The boy who had changed the grade on his paper hung his head like he was waiting for the executioner, but I was more worried about the tattler. His neighbor’s grade does not concern him. He didn’t need to share the information with the whole class.

A publication in the journal, Developmental Psychology, postulates that middle school students believe that serious ethical transgressions justify telling the teacher. Was the informant trying to correct what he saw as an “ethical transgression,” or was he trying to shame his classmate. Due to the fact that he chose to share the information in such a public way, I strongly suspect the latter. Thus, in this case, “tattling” manifested as a form of bullying.

What of the boy who changed his grade? That is between the boy, his parents, and me. However, considering that the correct grade was already logged in the online grade book, and that the parents had already accessed the test results, natural consequences should take care of the situation quite nicely.

In order to make my classroom a true sanctuary, I need to be vigilant and address these types of everyday situations which may make students feel inferior, and I need to teach the others that active listening is a valuable and dignified life skill.