After teaching a particularly grueling class, I looked forward to the solace of my 55-minute planning period. I started to organize the black hole that is my desk and found a folded piece of notebook paper with my name, Ms. Samsa, hastily scrawled onto it.
I read the few short sentences: “Thank you for being a really great teacher. I read what you wrote on my paper and it really helped me. I just wanted you to know that I really appreciate the impact you have on our lives. Thank you.”
The note is signed, Connie. A few weeks before, Connie wrote a paper about her experience being bullied because she is a lesbian. I’d not witnessed any bullying behavior. High school kids are usually pretty good at hiding their mischief from teachers. However, I can’t say I was surprised. It’s no secret that bullying is an epidemic in our nation’s schools, and especially LGBT bullying.
At the end of her paper, I’d written her a relatively long note, thanking her for sharing her experiences with me. I told her I was proud of her for going to a trusted adult and talking with the bully and coming to a workable solution. I hoped she would return to this particular paper as she went through life to remind herself that she is stronger than she might realize.
There is a Gay-Straight Alliance at our school. But in the past, it was difficult to keep attendance up. Students stopped coming for fear that they may become targets of bullies or that friends, families or peers might judge them.
Now I try to help students as much as I can, both inside my classroom and out. Every year, I receive about a dozen personal essays, journal entries or folded notes on my desk describing instances of bullying. Some students are hopelessness. Others are looking for the strength to push on. All of them want advice on how to handle it.
About 30 percent of middle and high school students are bullied each year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. We’ve read news reports about students are resorting to harming themselves—or worse—in an attempt to stop the misery.
So while we focus on ensuring that school policies are clear on bullying, intervene in any incidents and instruct bystanders on how to speak up, we must continue to empower each student being bullied.
It’s a multi-level approach.
I can instill in students a sense of pride in who they are. I will talk about how proud I am of them. Hopefully, when bullies get them down, they can remember that and bring themselves back up when there’s no one else there to do it for them.
I would love to squash bullying once and for all and I’ll continue to try my hardest. Until then, though, I want my students to know that at least one adult supports and is inspired by them. I hope that will keep them strong and help them through high school and beyond.
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.