One man's bully is another man's friend
Anika was nearly thirteen years old when I met her for the first time. I taught her for nearly two years and at age 14 she displayed the characteristic self-consciousness of her age. I had always been impressed with her vivacious personality and her curious approach to her science work. In recent weeks I had observed a withdrawn shyness and reticence. She was reluctant to participate in lessons. On this Friday afternoon as she entered the science laboratory I was struck by her appearance. She had dark circles beneath her eyes and displayed a world-weary lethargy. She sat alone, which struck me as unusual. In her isolation I observed a thin fragile figure who seemed only to vaguely resemble her former self. Her weight loss over recent weeks I had put down to her age. Many girls around 14 lose ‘puppy fat’. With hindsight I realise that Anika hadn’t had any ‘puppy fat’ to lose.
The lesson began and the practical details were conveyed to the class. We were prepared for the investigation; one last detail needed to be attended to. Who would work with whom? There was no reason on this day to allocate groups; these children knew each other and I thought no more of my decision to let them work in friendship groups.
When the indication was given to begin, I mingled with the children, guiding them to the various pieces of equipment and materials they would need, counting out objects when and where necessary.
Amidst the the bustle of the practical session I caught sight of Anika sitting alone with a puddle of tears on the bench, her hands covering her face as if to make her invisible. I delegated my rôle to a student and approached Anika.
I had little idea of the consequences of my question “Is anything the matter?” A very quiet defeated voice replied “No-one wants to work with me.” For a moment I surveyed the room, unable to take in the fact that the rest of the class were unaware of Anika’s anguish and misery. Or were they? This was 9CS. I had taught them for nearly two years. They were a favourite class. I thought I knew them well, I liked them.
I realised something was going on which I was not privy to, and it was my responsibility to find out what it was and find a resolution. In an instant I gave the instruction to put away the equipment. This Friday afternoon science lesson was postponed. I had not prepared for this eventuality. I had no notes to refer to. For this lesson there were no lesson plans.
I rearranged the students’ seating slightly. I separated them out, giving each a little space from one another, and introduced the subject. “Something has occurred to me just now which I think needs our attention.”
I asked the class if anyone had ever been bullied or ‘picked on’. Many hands were thrust in the air. It was obvious that there were people here who had stories to tell. I asked the most eager students if they would describe their experiences. What had happened? How did it make them feel? Did anyone help them? I was surprised at the number of children who felt they had at one time or another been bullied. Everyone seemed to understand the word. No-one asked what I meant by ‘bullying’. Throughout it all, Anika remained silent.
I then went on to ask the question “Are any of you bullies?” No hands went up. I had a class of victims and no perpetrators. “How strange” I said. “Research shows that some people who are bullies have been bullied themselves.”
I then asked the class if anyone had taken any notice of Anika recently. I relayed my observations about weight loss and exhaustion, and specifically how her ability to work had been undermined.
“Every one of you who comes to my class has a right, an equal opportunity to learn. Unfortunately it appears that some of you in this class think you have the right to make Anika’s life so miserable that she is not fit to fully participate in lessons. Today I observed that no-one would partner her.”
“Would anyone like to be Anika’s partner?” I asked.
There was a silence, and then two girls put their hands up, and said very sincerely “Anika can work with us.” I answered that it was a kind offer which I’m sure would be appreciated.
I then asked the class if any of them considered themselves cowards. Naturally no-one did.
I said that there was a very strong correlation between bullies and cowards, and that it was very likely that there were bullies and cowards in the class, based on my observations of Anika.
In a very determined tone, I asked for the people who had been making her life a misery to own up. After a silence I followed the question with an observation that we really did have cowards in the class, and what was more the whole class was behaving in a cowardly fashion.
After some moments, three hands went up. These boys had succumbed to the peer pressure and were admitting their parts.
I asked them in turn “Why?” They couldn't articulate why. They didn’t know why.
“Are you sorry?” I asked. A resounding “Yes” came back. It had started as a ‘bit of fun’. These boys decided to exclude her from activities, encouraging others to do the same. If anyone had thought not to it was certainly easier to go along with the game. Not one of them had any real notion of the consequence of their actions.
“Sometimes,” I said, “children are made to feel so desperate that they kill themselves.” I referred to cases of schoolboy and girl hangings due to bullying. I wasn’t being dramatic; I felt the seriousness of what was happening in their own midst had to be seen for what it was. They were all responsible for it in some way. People who ignored it were as guilty.
The lesson was drawing to a close. I faced each of the perpetrators and asked if they were ready to apologise to Anika. To my amazement they were truly sorry. One boy even cried as he saw Anika’s face. A wave of relief spread across her face.
The bell rang; the lesson ended. It was time to leave. After all, it was the weekend. However, no-one was in a hurry to leave. The stools went on bench tops, and slowly the pupils advanced towards the door. Individual groups approached the bench wanting to explain what had happened and exonerate themselves. Some offered to have Anika in their group, even though they had not really been close to her. They wanted to help. They were sorry they hadn’t noticed. Some were sorry they had gone along with it and were relieved it wasn’t them. Monday came and a new rejuvenated Anika thanked me. Her hair was clean and her eyes had sparkle. She said I had changed her life.
This learning experience was one of the most memorable ones in my fifteen year career. I learnt that some situations require spontaneity and a flexible approach. It also reinforced my belief that a good mentor knows her students. The successful resolution of this situation came about because the students cared for and respected me. I always endeavour to understand my pupils, and I work with them to forge good relationships and respect. I pay attention to detail and I care passionately about the welfare and well-being of my students and through my work I impart values of decency and trust, and the value of human relationships. I never underestimate the importance of the learning environment and the impact classroom dynamics have on students’ ability to learn. Providing the students with outstanding curriculum material presented and taught in an accomplished way is sometimes not enough.