One of the many duties I have as an elementary school principal is dealing with the misbehaviors of children. When I first started my educational administration career as a vice principal 18 years ago, I had no idea what types of behaviors I would encounter in elementary children. I had been trained as a secondary teacher and was woefully underprepared for the behaviors of 5- to 12-year-olds. Four different elementary schools, two states, one foreign country, thousands of kids and all these years later, I have a pretty good understanding of 5- to 12-year-olds and their misbehaviors.
There is one pervasive issue I have dealt with that has been consistent in all schools, through more than 20 years and across all ages. That issue is bullying. Bullying is difficult to correct, and almost as difficult to define. What one person considers bullying, another person dismisses as simple teasing or “having fun.” For school purposes, we try to see bullying through the eyes of the victim, but what the victim perceives can be problematic for the alleged bully because in some cases, the bully didn’t even realize that her or his behavior was so upsetting to the other person.
Because of this, I spend a lot of time on “sensitivity training,” trying to help kids see the world through a classmate’s eyes. In doing so, I try to help each see the other’s intent, persuade them to reach a different understanding and find a new path forward. In some of these cases, the victim is deeply hurt and wants to inflict similar (or worse) pain on the bully. This desire is normal to some degree — to want “payback.” But I have found that this desire for revenge doesn’t really bring the outcome that the bullied child wants. Reversing roles may bring temporary release of pent-up emotions, but it doesn’t correct the problem.
I’ve thought often of the many initiatives I have enacted at my four schools to stop bullying and encourage children to create an environment where all are welcome and appreciated. We plan school-wide rules and teach them at assemblies, in classrooms and during morning announcements. We reward children for doing the right thing. We are trying but can’t seem to eliminate bullying. Why do we have a problem with bullying at school? There are probably a lot of answers, but one of them certainly is because adults model bullying for the kids. Yes, I’m talking about you.
The efforts school leaders and educators make to teach children to show respect and think about another’s feelings are not always modeled in larger society. When one group or person feels that their feelings and values have been ignored or trampled upon, it is natural for them to want to turn the tables, to make the other side feel some of their pain. But do we really understand the far-reaching consequences of being disrespectful to other people, their beliefs and values? Do we understand the effect it is having on children who watch and learn?
I am not the world’s principal, but I sure wish people could see that becoming the bully is one of the worst ways an “enlightened” and “educated” populace should behave. To disparage someone else because you believe they deserve it denies another person’s thoughts and values. It denigrates deeply held beliefs. It devalues humanity. Becoming a bully is one of the worst choices a person can make, yet people choose it each day, on either side of any issue. I have read in local newspapers that every political problem in Utah is caused by the Mormons, by the Republicans, by the Democrats. It’s Obama’s fault. It’s Bush’s fault. On and on, over and over. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, both sides do it.
I’m certain the same people who engage in bully behavior would be the first to decry bullying at school or online, but because they are adults, they somehow think it is OK. Adults can handle it, right?
Here’s my plea: stop being mean and disrespectful. Just because you believe differently, or feel that you have been treated unfairly, doesn’t make it OK to be scornful, sarcastic or belittling. Regardless of which side of any issue you are on, for goodness sake, please stop being nasty about how you feel. If you want respect, show some first, even to those you consider enemies. You lose nothing; you might gain a whole lot.
Many eyes are watching, and they need some correct modeling of how to handle differences of opinion. Please, for the kids, choose respect.
Darren Johnson is an elementary school principal in American Fork.