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Bullying prevention is more about listening than talking

6 min read


I am no expert on bullying prevention. I am an educator who cares about children, a victim of bullying, and I’m sure I have been a perpetrator at times.

For me, seventh grade was the most awful year of my life. (Eighth, thankfully, was a positive one, by some saving grace.) In my home district, middle school was only seventh and eighth grade, and it was the first time every elementary-school student came together in one horrible mix of adolescent hormones. My year of being bullied started in the most ironic of places, “Health and Careers,” or whatever terribly lame name the class was given. To up the ironic ante, it began during the self-esteem unit — no joke — on the day we needed to bring a “me bag” of things from our lives that made us proud.

I liked many things, including drawing, and brought in drawings I did by studying photos from a calendar my mother hung up in our house. I did not pay attention to the topic of the photos, only the fact that I re-created them so carefully. When I pulled out drawings of puppies and boats during eighth-period “Health and Careers,” I became the target of a year of emotional and mental torture that made me want to stay home, hide my personality and diminish my self-worth. Thank you, self-esteem unit.

Here is the thing about all of this: I don’t know that anyone knew. I hoped in deepest hopes that someone would step in and stop Joe and his band of nimrods from making every period, through lunch, through after-school activities a living hell. But I never let on. And no one ever did.

Prevention means listening and making space for being heard

No habit takes hold from one assembly, one poster, one month. Instead, it seems you get good only at the things you do — and doing better things is hard. The habit of eating well and exercising is impossible for most of us; we drop off our efforts, then need to climb back up and get back on that treadmill. The habit of caring for one another needs to be one of continued reflection, long past the month ends and the ribbon-wearing day is done.

More importantly, it seems, this action needs to be more about how carefully we listen.

I think it is criminal that in this age of Common Core, we sometimes hear leaders suggesting that personal writing, personal reading and personal opinions are no longer worth anything. Dave Coleman’s infamous “no one gives a sh*t about what you think or what you feel” comment is only one of the bushel (start at 8:55 in the video to view his comment in context); he is not alone.

I argue, however, that if bullying prevention with a capital B is important to us, then space for being personal is more important than ever. What I had in seventh grade were a whole lot of essays and the occasional creative-writing project — which I honestly loved far more than writing back to a textbook. What I wish I had then is what I am so happy to see in many classrooms now: space for students to understand — as my colleague Mary Ehrenworth teaches — that our lives are worth writing about. We all have struggles and fears and hopes and junk to deal with, and all of it is worth putting on a page. We are each that important.

When ninth-grader Jerome (name changed) wrote about fearing going home in a poem because his mother would use a broomstick on his rib cage, we were able to find him help. When third-grader Sasha (name changed) wrote an all-about book on divorce and her mom read it and saw the page Sasha drew of herself crying, it opened a challenging but necessary door. Recently, fifth-grader Steven (name changed) came into a classroom I was consulting in with eyes red from tears, but he “didn’t want to talk about it” when his kind teacher pulled him aside. A short while later, I learned from his writing about an awesome day he spent with his dad geocaching (which I simultaneously learned about in that conversation), and he smiled.

It would be criminal — I would go so far as to say borderline child neglect — to not provide space in our classrooms for students to write about their lives, to talk about their opinions, to read about characters that are going through the highs and lows they are as well and to provide continuous opportunities for students to “speak” in whatever way they are able.

A few resources for providing space to listen in our instruction

There are many activities to do and speeches to give during Bullying Prevention Month. A key, however, is not so much what we say but how often we step back to listen, how often we make space for every life in our school to be heard.

Christopher Lehman is an author, a speaker and a senior staff developer at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University. His latest book, “Energize Research Reading and Writing,” is available. He can be found on his blog and on Twitter @iChrisLehman.