Brothers and Bullies: Bridging the Gap Between Big Sister and Future Educator

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My little brother, Tanner, is a blonde-haired stick of dynamite in the fifth grade. Here are some things you should know about Tanner:

  • When he was four years old, he ran away on a golf cart.
  • When he was six, he operated an excavator and dug the foundation for a house my father was building.
  • He goes deep-sea fishing fifty miles offshore.
  • He can drive a car as well as I can.
  • He makes YouTube tutorial videos for Minecraft.
  • He can take apart and rebuild a computer in twenty minutes.
  • He plays piano by ear.
  • He rides motocross.
  • He is a math whiz who computes problems in his head.
  • He is extremely insightful, absolutely hilarious, and is the most stubborn person I’ve ever met.
  • He still likes to snuggle with me before bedtime.

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Sounds like an all-star kid, right?

Yesterday, my mother was talking with my brother before he went to sleep. He tearfully told her that he wishes he had a microphone on him at school to record all of the hurtful things his classmates say to him. Two children constantly bash him and recently started calling him “cancer.” He joined an after school running club called Stride, and my mom bought him new running shoes to get him excited about learning to run. His classmates started taunting him about his new shoes and calling them ugly.

Mean? Yes. Typical elementary school bullies? Maybe.

Here are some more things you should know about Tanner that might change your original perception of him:

  • He is on medication for a severe case of ADHD.
  • He has been to four different elementary schools in five years.
  • He doesn’t have a lot of friends.
  • He is currently dealing with the divorce of our parents and attends therapy sessions.
  • He gets extremely angry very quickly and sometimes responds aggressively to authority.
  • He struggles with spelling, reading, and writing.

Suddenly, the bullying of his classmates seems a little darker. Tanner is dealing with a lot of things in his life right now- fearing his days at school or associating them with mean classmates should not be one of them.


 

As Tanner’s sister, this situation eats me alive. I am angry at the bullies in his classroom and I wish I could give them- and their parents- a piece of my mind. I am angry at the classroom teacher for not noticing the blatant bullying and putting an immediate stop to it. My heart breaks for Tanner, because I know his heart, his mind, and his struggles more than most others do. My original instinct is to pick up the phone in my shaking hands and demand to schedule a meeting with the teacher, the bullies, and their parents. To protect Tanner from the cruelness of people. To keep him as safe as possible.

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As a future educator, however, I have to take a step backward and reevaluate the situation. Why haven’t the classroom teachers noticed the bullying? I notice rifts and disagreements between students in my internship class all the time, and I intervene accordingly. I’m able to see a lot more than the students think I do. I know what “teacher eyes” are like, and I know that Tanner’s classroom teachers have them. Thus, I am inclined to think that the bullying is happening outside of the classroom, such as at the lunch table, in the hallway, or out on the playground.

I question why Tanner hasn’t told anyone about the abuse. Is it because he’s afraid of being seen as weak? Is it because he has responded in an unkind way and is afraid of getting in trouble himself? Is he only sharing one side of the story? Do his teachers seem disinterested or uncaring? Has he told, but his teachers haven’t taken him seriously? Many different scenarios could be at play.

According to the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety survey, adults were notified in less than half of all bullying incidents. Kids don’t tell on their bullies for many reasons: They may want to feel in control of the situation, they may fear backlash from the bullies, they may feel that no one cares enough to help, and they may fear peer rejection. (http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/warning-signs/index.html)

While I don’t know the logistics of the bullying incidents with Tanner, one thing is certain:  His situation is not a unique one. Bullying is a HUGE problem in schools, and it’s an area in which current and future teachers need to be educated and trained. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, one out of four students report being bullied during the school year. (http://www.pacer.org/bullying/about/media-kit/stats.asp) Bullying occurs in school, out of school, and through technology. Students who are bullied are at an increased risk for stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, and decreased academic performance. Severe and extensive bullying can lead to self-harm, substance abuse and addiction, and suicide. (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying_factsheet.pdf)


 

Teachers cannot change what’s going on in the lives of their students. Bullies are often dealing with their own deep-set issues, which manifest themselves in the form of bullying others to feel powerful, popular, or in control. What teachers CAN change, however, is the climate of their classroom, as well as their expectations for student behavior.

From the first day of school, teachers need to cultivate a friendly, welcoming, and open classroom environment, a safe zone where students of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, cultures, religions, and identities are valued and respected. The biases and stereotypes teachers hold do not go unnoticed by students. A teacher has to show and embody a genuine devotion to equity and equality in order to create a student culture with those values.

When teachers establish and discuss rules and expectations with their students, they should devote an ample amount of time to discussing the value of diversity. Each student is different from the next, and all students bring something unique and valuable to the classroom environment. Teachers should curate culturally-responsive classroom library collections and plan lessons that celebrate all colors, cultures, and beliefs. When touchy issues arise within the classroom, teachers shouldn’t brush them under the rug; rather, they should see such opportunities as valuable learning experiences, and engage students in discussion and questioning to promote greater understanding, empathy, and respect. Why is Barack Obama the only black president we’ve had? Why aren’t women’s sports teams paid the same as men’s? Why do some boys fall in love with other boys? If teachers tackle these questions with truth, tact, and excitement and openly involve all students in the explanation of their answers, there will be no room for students to make fun of one another for their outward appearance, exclude one another based on gender, or cause a fuss when one of the boys comes to school wearing glittery jewelry.

Of course, even the most open and accepting classroom will face bullying incidents. As children grow and learn and develop, negative interactions are inevitable. Effectively implementing a no-tolerance bullying policy is important. Taking reports of bullying extremely seriously will prove to students that bullying has no place in the classroom. Teachers can have their students create consequences for bullying with them at the beginning of the school year; involving them in this process will make them more inclined to maintain a positive environment. Teachers need to make sure that they maintain an open line of communication with all students. Students need to know that they can come to the teacher at any time with serious issues, and that they will be helped and supported when they do. Students need to be taught how to intervene when they see bullying occurring, strategies for dealing with bullies, and how to deal with troublesome emotions that may cause them to bully others. To make these ideas more tangible for young learners, teachers can engage students in situational role-playing activities, encouraging them to act out what to do!

The classroom conversation about bullying is one that should last the entire school year. Teachers can get creative with the ways they talk about bullying; there are a wealth of incredible books, activities, and resources available to help incorporate it into core subjects. Here are just a few of my favorite things/ideas:

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  • Star Student Day: EACH and EVERY student in the class gets to be the star student for a day. On their special day, every student in the class writes something kind about them or draws them a special picture. The student stands up and classmates give them meaningful compliments. The student gets to perform special classroom duties and can even wear something special and recognizable, like a crown or a sash.
  • Enemy Pie by Derek Munson: This is an amazing book about one boy’s experience with his biggest enemy. There’s a website for the book, which includes a ton of great resources and lesson plans! (http://www.enemypie.com) BY THE WAY– this is on TumbleBooks!
  • Mix It Up at Lunch Day: Students have to sit next to someone completely new at lunch. As classes switch up and students are forced to step outside of their comfort zones for a lunch period, students are encouraged to make new friends and accept one another. (http://www.tolerance.org/mix-it-up/what-is-mix) Teachers can provide students with lists of questions to ask their new lunch buddies to get the conversation rolling.
  • Documentary: “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case That Made History.” This documentary is free for educators (http://www.tolerance.org/kit/bullied-student-school-and-case-made-history), includes a viewer’s guide with lesson plans and additional resources, and makes for as a great professional development opportunity.

Here are some additional anti-bullying resources I’ve compiled:

BOOKS

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LESSON PLANS/ACTIVITIES

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VIDEOS

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So, as a sister to a fifth grader experiencing bullying firsthand, I am anxious to put an end to bullying in our schools. As a future educator, I am learning exactly HOW to make that possible. I wish I had the ability to observe in Tanner’s classroom and engage the students in some of these activities and discussions; however, it won’t be long before I’ll have the ability to do that in a classroom of my own. For now, I resume my sisterly role and give my little brother all the love and support he needs.

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Do you have any comments/ideas/resources to share? Please post them and let’s get the dialogue going!

Thanks for reading!!

-Summer-

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6 thoughts on “Brothers and Bullies: Bridging the Gap Between Big Sister and Future Educator

  1. Summer as an assistant in the classroom for 22 years, I always had to take the class to lunch and I had them to rotate seats weekly. I really think it helped to get to know their class mates and except them . I am so concerned over Tanner situation and I intent to go have lunch soon with him. I really want to help in some way.
    So enjoyed your article, you will the an awesome teacher.

    Like

  2. Great insight on such a prevalent problem. I haven’t seen it in either of my internship classrooms but I’ve heard about it from my teacher. The things kids do and say are ruthless. I hope Tanner hangs in there and can rise above it all. As a person who has experience and ADHD, I’m here as a resource. Don’t hesitate to ask questions!

    Like

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