Friday, March 25, 2011

Are Bullies Just Babies?

I find it ironic that our daughter, Elizabeth, is dealing with bullying at school around the same time I was getting pushed around at work. First, she had her hands full with a disgruntled ex-friend who acted out feelings of anger on the internet, and then, most recently, we had a go round with an adult bully; one of Elizabeth’s teachers.

Now that I’m home, I’m more tuned in to my family. Elizabeth has always shared her day with Leslie after school, but by the time I got home tired and stressed, it was old news. Elizabeth is sharing more with me, usually over homework or projects. She has one teacher (of course, I won’t get into names) who has created a confrontational environment in the classroom, and as a result students are afraid to ask questions. It’s clear this teacher wants to consider herself sarcastic, when in fact her students perceive her as a bully.

A few weeks ago Elizabeth told us about how this teacher frightened a very shy student in class by asking rapid fire questions aggressively and then continuing to prod for an answer when the student wouldn’t or couldn’t. This and other issues with rude teachers prompted us to share unsolicited parent feedback with the principal via email. Then, just last week, this same teacher turned her fiery consternation on Elizabeth. Liz asked a question in class (after being out the previous day), and the teacher answered by leaning right into her face and yelling at her so loud Elizabeth could smell her nasty breath! She was intimidating and threatening, and everyone in the class heard her shout, “NO! We’re not gonna do that yet! We don’t even have what we NEED to do that yet!” Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to say, “We’re not there at this time”? Obviously, not yelling would be preferable. So, Leslie and I made a formal complaint to the principal and asked how it would be handled.

We attended a round table meeting just a day or so ago with the principal, the teacher, and Elizabeth. This is apparently part of the formal complaint process. Prior to our meeting and after having personally confirmed our claim by interviewing more than a handful of students who witnessed what happened, the principal shared our email message with his teacher. In our meeting, she responded with what I thought was slightly genuine, albeit definitely well-rehearsed sincerity. I’ve conducted many meetings around staff conduct at work, and I find often times they know when they’re crossing the line. This kind of person may take immediate responsibility for what they’re hearing, and claim they didn’t mean it, but it’s usually to cool down the heat. To them, it’s a calculated risk.

Judging from the principal’s direct communication over the table on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in a teacher, I’m wagering they had an off-line discussion. The teacher shared that she had a group meeting with her classroom prior to ours and gave them a “safe word”. She asked them to call out the word “banana” each time they felt threatened or intimidated. Isn’t this putting the responsibility for her conduct on them? I’m pretty sure safe words are reserved for bondage and discipline or S&M games more so than for school. Also, in our meeting, the teacher was open and verbal about needing Elizabeth’s approval. “Didn’t I use your work as an example, Elizabeth?” Ha. Ha. She wanted everyone to laugh it off, but it was clear to Leslie and I that she needed the strokes, even from a kid. Leslie wanted to make some salient points about teacher's ethics, which she did with grace and intelligence.  I wanted to make sure we were heard and was satisfied.  Elizabeth knew we had her back.  In the end, we all felt better for having met.

I’ve discovered that bullies are a curious bunch whose modus operandi is to make their bad behavior your responsibility. It’s happened to me at work and in friendships. It can happen in loving relationships, parents do it to their kids, it obviously happens between classmates, and now we’ve experienced it with a full grown adult and student role model. Of course, it also happens for tragic reasons such as sexual or physical abuse, when young children are robbed of their empathy and compassion. But that is a much deeper topic. Currently, the television show “Glee” addresses this with both humor and pathos, and I’m just so impressed with what they’re doing. Take Sue Sylvester, for example. She is a role model for brazen bullies hiding a golden heart. They’re also addressing bisexuality in students, homosexuality, and with the character Karofsky, they’ve taken on what can happen when an individual is personally conflicted about these things. It explores how that confusion can be acted out as real threats and violence.

The average bully wants your attention, expects that you will agree with them, and will go to great lengths to make you when you don’t. What motivates this behavior might be a fear of feelings like inferiority, unworthiness, or sexual ambiguity. I find that beneath the crusty exterior of a bully lies an intense childlike desire for attention.

It is the nature of a bully to make their problem your problem, and to belittle your efforts, actions or experiences, in order to make theirs feel superior. Whether or not we choose to take on that burden is entirely up to us.

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Read more about cyber-bullying here and here.

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