Middle school teachers struggle to find ways to respond to bullying, teasing, name-calling and exclusionary practices among students. We tread lightly sometimes, afraid of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time thus making conditions worse for a bullied student. Being heavy-handed almost never works. Students also know how to say the right thing to adults and then act in a completely contrary way towards peers.
Turns out, the most powerful forces available to address bullying are the students. I learned this after participating in GLSEN’s national No Name-Calling Week a couple years ago. Adolescents often value the approval of their classmates above the advice of their teachers. It’s part of normal social development.
In the weeks leading up to No Name-Calling Week, my class of seventh- and eighth-graders participated in activities, collected data and prepared mini-lessons to lead with younger students. As part of the data collection, students observed classes during recesses and recorded any name-calling they witnessed. They also completed surveys about their own histories with bullying and name-calling. What they found most interesting was the role of the bystander. Nearly every act of name-calling that my students observed involved a child who did the name-calling, a child who was the target and one or more bystanders who did not correct or come to the aid of the target. My students also admitted to having been bystanders themselves. In fact, people identified themselves as being bystanders more than they identified themselves as name-callers or targets.
The middle school curriculum for No Name-Calling Week offers a lesson called “Don’t Just Stand By,” and offers scenarios and helpful advice on how bystanders can be transformed into allies. There are also activities that look at the potential impact of bystanders.
I think of the focus on the bystander as addressing bullying from the inside out. I now look for ways to establish allies for bullied students. I identify groups or pairs of students to be allies. I plan to use peer mediation as a way to create a strong ally system in my classroom.
I often direct my students to this quote on our wall and remind them of the power of being an ally. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” As the teacher, I am responsible for setting up a safe and welcoming environment, but ultimately it is up to the students to create the community they want.
The 2013 No Name-Calling Week is scheduled for Jan. 21-25.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.