Joanne has a degree in speech pathology, audiology and English literature, and worked as a business office manager in finance, and as a credit manager at various organizations. She left her job to focus on a passion project developing a program for teens at risk. While doing this she began substitute teaching which took her on a path to becoming a high school teacher which she continued for 25 years.
Having worked both in the private sector as well as in schools, Joanne had an appreciation for how bullying that began at school had a tendency to continue in the workplace as kids grew up, often taking their bullying behaviours with them.
During the last eight years of teaching, Joanne developed a program that addressed bullying in the school, called Becoming Bullyproof. This program combined her tactics she used as a teacher in the classroom with advice and best practices that parents, students, teachers and administration can use to document, communicate and take action on bullying incidents. Joanne will describe this in detail later.
Joanne found herself at odds with the administration from time to time regarding her teaching style. She was never convinced that standardized testing was the be all end all of determining if kids were learning the lessons they needed to learn. In life and business, it’s more about a synergistic, collaborative and innovative process than it is about having ‘the right answer’ as an individual. She really wanted them to take away life lessons that they could demonstrate as much as the facts and material dictated in the curriculum. She really believed in using stories and literature as a way to help give kids context for understanding situations where interpersonal skills, emotions and behaviour were influencing outcomes. Then, she would expect that her students would demonstrate some of these lessons in the way they behaved and interacted in her class.
Joanne also has some experience with students who bully their teachers. In one example there was a girl who made a point to tell her, during the first week at school, that she was responsible for making another teacher cry, and getting another fired. It came across very clearly as a threat, and an attempt to establish a sort of power dynamic with the teacher. Joanne responded by writing to notify the principal and administration to the potential issue of the girl continuing to seek power over the teacher. The girl did act up, and because Joanne was steadfast in documenting the incidents and not allowing the girl to intimidate her, the girl continued to disrupt the class and was eventually moved to another class. In my personal opinion, I would suspect this girl had some underlying need that wasn’t being met, or a past or present trauma she was dealing with. Perhaps even just a poor role model in her life. Unfortunately the solution seemed to only involve moving her somewhere where perhaps a teacher was more tolerant of her behaviour.
Often times in a bullying situation, it’s largely invisible to most people until something more serious happens like a physical fight. Behind the scenes, there is usually a prolonged history of antagonizing behaviour like name calling, gestures and looks, exclusion, shaming etc. When the ‘outburst’ is seen, it’s often dealt with and punished as a stand alone incident, like in one case Joanne observed. A student was escorted off school property in the winter without even being able to get her belongings or jacket, and was punished with anger management classes. However, this girl had been targeted by another girl who belonged to a group that had more social power among the students. This was used to intimidate and bully her, and eventually escalated to a physical conflict. However, this wasn’t considered when the girl was punished for fighting. Joanne sat down with the student and her mother, and did a bit of role playing and talking about different ways to deal with situations where emotions wouldn’t become inflamed as easily. This was a much better approach than being kicked out of school and sent to the police station for punishment, which would obviously inflame emotions and resentment even more.
In these situations, it’s important to know how to ask specific questions in a way that determines the reality behind how the situation started and evolved, who has the most social power, is the target part of a marginalized group. Then, document everything and address the students in a way that helps them calm down, de-escalate and change behaviour.
In order to determine some of the signs and symptoms of bullying, a teacher needs to not only be aware but proactive. For example, understanding the power dynamics of student groups or cliques through observation, or simply putting the question to the students. “Who seems to always get away with murder”. “Who are the kids who seem to skate by who are never disciplined for their behaviour?”. “Who are the kids who are always in trouble and in detention?”. Bullies are also working from a place of extrinsic or external motivators of value and worth. They often want to be number one. They want to be on top.
Teachers can then implement anti-bullying lessons as part of their teaching style. Some of these suggestions are as follows:
When appropriate, role play with kids to help them come up with better responses they can practice for when they are being targeted by a bully. Help them formulate neutral responses that show confidence, and indifference, and remove the bully’s power. For example, if someone is called ‘four eyes’ because they wear glasses, one could say “you know, it’s been three months and I think you know my name by now so you can call me by that if you’d like me to help you with something” or “I happen to like my glasses”. Speak in a way where the bully isn’t threatened, so they don’t escalate or retort with another comeback.
Teach kids the difference between self-esteem and self-worth. Or, intrinsic value vs extrinsic value. The way Joanne sees self-esteem is a sort of extrinsic value – where kids value their identity based on external things. She always tries to promote self-worth – the value of a person coming from within themselves. Too many programs promise to ‘give’ a child self-esteem – and often it can be a quick and fast, gimmicky sort of solution that is appealing to people. This is because there’s a large focus on things like ‘winners’ vs ‘losers’ or competition, or being elite.
Education is often quite competitive, and echoes a lot of these ‘external value’ sentiments, which adds to the problem. The pressure has people believing that they must ‘win at all costs’ but doesn’t actually teach them how to win. One can win by doing destructive things, pulling down everyone else around them and benefitting on the back of someone else’s failure, or you can win by helping others and raise all the boats in the harbour. The latter isn’t the ‘natural’ way most people think. It’s untrue to think that in order to win, someone else must lose.
Another example is when a child isn’t performing well, parents may pressure the school to have the kid moved to another class where the teacher will pass them, rather than holding the child accountable for their own learning. There’s a lot of entitlement, combined with a lack of ownership of responsibility, and it’s reinforced by the education system and in some ways society at large. Even many teachers don’t want to rock the boat and stir up conflict, so they’ll passively act to push kids along to the next step, hoping they’ll learn further down the road. This is a massive failure in education.
It’s really important to understand that if someone gives you something, they also have power over you, they can take that away. That’s an outside force that’s making you feel good about yourself. With intrinsic self-worth, nobody is able to take that away or diminish it – the power stays with the individual. People working from self-worth have that inner sense of satisfaction and contentment in increasing their mastery of skills and talents. That they feel good in helping other people, collaborating and trying to raise all boats in the harbour for everyone. That your success doesn’t come at the cost of someone else’s failure. Another benefit of developing self-worth is you don’t get caught up in the drama and power struggle
Joanne had two simple rules in her classroom: 1. Either you’re helping to move the class forward and advance, or you’re holding them back in some way. 2. Treat everyone with kindness because you don’t know what they’re going through. By implementing these rules, and demonstrating them regularly – the class would eventually get on board and start to self-regulate as a group. In order to weave this into the learning and curriculum, she would actually fail students on tests related to these sorts of lessons if those students had been found to bully someone or had acted in ways to the detriment of others. It was a controversial practice, but certainly justifiable given the students were not demonstrating they had learned and understood the material being taught. I thought that was a powerful way to emphasize the seriousness of these lessons. She was trying to do some important character development alongside the purely academic requirements.
Joanne has put together a webinar, learning materials and templates in order to teach parents, teachers, and students the best ways to handle bullying situations. There are ways to communicate between parents and teachers that prevent further conflict from muddying the situation and making it worse. There are ways to ensure the school is taking things seriously, and have an action plan.
First contact with the school – it’s critically important to take the right first steps once you notice something is going on with your child, or your student. The first thing to do is look up the local state or provincial education law on harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB). It’s also important to have a good sense of the definition of bullying. Finally, there are policies, procedures and codes of conduct that each school board will lay out regarding this – and having knowledge of those will equip you with the means to write up a compelling case for action to be taken, making reference to the above mentioned pieces of information. Another thing to be aware of is understanding if / where there is a power imbalance with the people involved (there almost always is). This will help make a compelling case that bullying is happening, when the situation fits the definition and is in violation of any laws, policies, mission statements or procedures that exist.
Next, creating an incident report which outlines when, where, what happened, who was involved (instigator, bully, targets, bystanders, upstanders etc), what you want the school to do, what you don’t want them to do, while referencing their own policies. It’s important to write this in a structured email that plainly presents the facts without aggressive language or intimidation. This will help keep emotions from interfering with the process – as it’s a very emotional situation for people involved. Going immediately and speaking to the administration, teachers, students, or parents often escalates the conflict. You want to be authoritative, but not aggressive. Joanne outlines more about what details to include in the email in the podcast.
Ultimately, Joanne believes that there’s some responsibility on the part of every student to learn tactics for dealing with bullying behaviour, so if it does occur they’re well prepared to handle it or document it and not let it get out of hand. One way to do this is practicing how to respond to verbal provocations and insults in a way that doesn’t aggravate or intimidate the bully, but dampens the response. Another way is to teach kids the reality that some people will bully others for various reasons (they aren’t happy, they are struggling with something, they feel bad about themselves) – and with that understanding they may react differently. Not only that, kids can’t expect everyone is going to like them or be nice all the time. Kids can be made aware that their behaviours may unknowingly provoke negative feelings in others. Helping them become aware will prevent them from becoming startled, shocked, offended or afraid if it happens. If a kid is highly intelligent, or really good at something and someone starts getting on their cast about it, the kid can offer to help them, show them or tell them it’s not a big deal (to diffuse any notion or perception they’re acting superior to the other). Just having conversations about it and telling and analyzing stories can help everyone become more aware of the dynamics involved with different behaviours, emotions and power structures. Teaching kids how to develop self-worth and find intrinsic value in themselves is of course a great way to balance things as well. There were so many suggestions and insights in this podcast episode to consider. There’s no one answer – it’s a multi-pronged approach, and a collaborative and inclusive one.