We need to rethink our anti-bullying efforts

I watched this video, and I was reminded of the primary reason I became a teacher. As a bullied youth, I wanted to try and help prevent this from happening to other children. I cannot see how I have been remotely successful in this goal.



I spend so much of my energy focusing on improving how my passion, mathematics, is taught, but not enough time thinking about and helping the kids who are my charges. I know that there are kids at my school who feel alone, and while they may not experience the intensity of the bullying that I did as a child, I’m sure their spirits are no less wounded than mine used to be.

Bullying is a complex problem. There are no simple solutions. That being said, children spend about 8 of their 16 waking hours involved in school in some fashion, and if at the end of this time they still feel isolated, alone, and broken, then we have failed utterly as an institution.

No one else has much time to influence their lives as we do. We need to make more of a difference.

Unfortunately we spend so much of our time and energy as an institution focusing on stuff which is almost trivial compared to some of the needs of our most vulnerable students. We know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and while we cannot prove empirically that it has validity, we know from our experience that children cannot learn effectively unless they feel loved and love themselves.

  • Schools should feel like communities where everyone knows everone else by name. It should not be possible for children to pass through our hallways and classrooms without talking to a single soul during the day,
  • We should reframe the problem in the positive. Instead of "don’t be a bully" we should model and teach empathy and compassion,
  • We need to start modeling empathy and compassion within our wider communities. We will never end bullying in schools while we accept it in the world outside of school,
  • Compassion often develops from experience with the other. Instead of separating kids by age, we need to find ways to form connections between kids of different ages. This way younger children always have an older ally, even when they scared to talk to adults. We need inclusive classrooms, not just because it results in better outcomes for the children with special needs, but because it will help all of the children learn about their colleagues more deeply,
  • We need to treat social interactions as a skill to be learned. When kids interact poorly, it is an opportunity for learning, and when kids are struggling, we should scaffold the skills they need both to cope and to understand their peers. One of my biggest problems growing up was that I did not understand the motivations and actions of the people around me, and so I often reacted poorly to even the smallest bit of negative attention. My nickname was Spaz instead of Porkchop.


Thank you, Shane, for reminding me of why I became an educator in the first place.



  • David – as always, thanks for challenging us to be better and putting yourself out there to make the story that much more powerful. We need to do better. I recently wrote about shifting our focus to kindness and care http://chriswejr.com/2013/02/25/kindness-and-care-more-than-a-single-day-effort/ but you have challenged me to do more – to truly get to know the students in our school. We have 181 days of school and only 240 students… I am sure that I can make a better effort to show our kids how much they matter to me. Great post – thanks for sharing.

  • I actually showed that video, along with another one, to all my classes over the past few days.

    Not completely related to mathematics, but completely related to student learning and student development as human beings.

    Bullying is a serious issue, and social interaction is an important element of every kid’s — every human being’s lives.

    Discussions and promotion of understanding is what we need. It is unfortunate that there isn’t a proper forum for this in a mathematics classroom (I jammed it in there anyway)

  • K.T. Pirquet wrote:

    David, you might be interested in the anti-bullying program we ran at our middle school in the late 80s and early 90s. It started with a ‘dustbinning’ of the CAPP curriculum and materials (lame), and writing a new course that would address issues of values, moral judgment, self-management, preparation for work, community service, and lifelong learning/fitness/health. It was ambitious, but my partner teacher and I gave it our best shot…

    We did a lot of preliminary work on values, getting students to examine and express their values, exploring what other people value, how values translate into behaviour and what that looks like, and so on. We were truly shocked at how prevalent and prominent were the values of affluence, having a lot of money, being able to have a nice house, fancy cars, entertainment, electronics, etc. But students also valued friendship and families, loyalty, etc. A few were focused on nature and good eco-stewardship, too, which gave us some hope.

    One lesson involved a rather detailed investigation of how mature people accept responsibility (and what that looks like) and how immature people avoid being responsible. We taught explicitly about denial, invalidation, deflection, minimizing, and other “strategies”, as well as withdrawal and aggression in its various gruesome iterations, such as put-downs, malicious gossip, exclusion, nasty tricks and pranks, humiliation, and outright violence in many forms. We also taught kids to face these behaviours and respond powerfully, assertively and non-violently, and to seek the help of trusted adults when they felt they were not getting on top of a situation or were resorting to “immature” strategies themselves in desperation. This took some time to go deeply into all of this material, and to get students comfortable with their new world view and a new language of personal power. We examined power-over, power-with, and power-within.

    We knew we were getting somewhere when we overheard kids on the playground and in the halls naming and confronting bullying behaviour: “You’re denying something that we saw you do, and it was aggressive and unacceptable. You’d better apologize!” or “That was a put-down and I don’t accept it. If you want to solve this problem, we can discuss it, but I won’t listen to any more of your put-downs.”

    I should note that there was some feedback from parents, too, a few of whose kids challenged them for their own behaviour and were more assertive and calm than they thought was possible. (A couple of kids had parents who could do with some attitude adjustment…) We worried a bit about the blow-back, but it never really materialized. Most feedback was surprised and positive.

    The counsellors, who had also been working hard on bullying issues by identifying and supporting potential and emerging bullies and their victims, noticed the kids using their values lessons in group sessions. Over a couple of years, we saw a significant reduction of bullying in our school and a definite improvement in what we could call civility, overall. As kids began to feel safer, they felt more investment in the school and each other. It sorted out a lot of the rough edges of school culture. Another result: a disclosure of rape by a student (in my own class) from a First Nations community that tended to bully and punish ‘squealers.’ rather than defend them. She did it because she wanted to protect her younger sisters, and she believed in her power-within. We were all stunned by her courage. The offender went to prison.

    My partner teacher and I were asked to present our ‘CAPPless’ program to the rest of the staff, who were quite positive and enthusiastic about it. I have no idea what they did with it after I moved on to the high school. Like so many good starts, I suspect it fizzled out when the drivers handed it on to those too busy or too tired to carry on. Hand-offs need to be done very thoughtfully, with extensive preparation and follow-up.

    Some other features of the program that dovetailed with the overall themes:
    – 10 hours of volunteer community service, and a reflective, 5-entry journal responding to 5 questions about their experience.
    – A visit to a community fitness centre to learn about lifelong fitness and to try out all of the equipment under expert supervision.
    – A visit to a local pizzeria owned and operated by a local man who was a recovering alcoholic and counsellor. This involved talk about what he wants in a good employee, what he wants to see in his workforce over time, and some frank discussion of drugs and alcohol and their role in adult or teen lives. The students got to be ’employees for a day’ by making their own pizzas and sharing lunch with the owner. This morning made a big impression, and sparked lots of discussion.
    – Visits from expert speakers on suicide prevention (very important for teens…), sexual, emotional and physical abuse, nutrition and other important topics.
    – Every student had to engage a speaker for a 15-to-20-minute talk on the speaker’s work life, hobbies, important life experiences, or something the speaker felt was very important to pass on to young people. This resulted in some remarkable presentations over the course of the year: a chef taught the class to make spanakopita; a father talked about losing his leg in an industrial accident and his experience of going back to get his high school diploma at 40; a student presented a talk about her grandfather (his experiences in the war), who had passed away and couldn’t do it himself; a woman brought her border collies and talked about herding trials and dog training; a woman hiker brought her fully-loaded pack and demonstrated how all of her gear helps her survive in the bush; a father (a paramedic) brought first aid equipment and walked the students through an emergency scene, with all of the processes demonstrated on a kid who ended up strapped to a Striker frame and bandaged from one end to the other (he also talked about what it is like to attend a MVA with injured and dying teenagers). There were many more, just as interesting and valuable for young people trying to figure out how to grow up.
    – Art project: students designed and crafted of coloured paper a 3D sculpture that expressed their feelings about their most important core value. These were the best art projects I have ever seen in middle school. Students were thoughtful, took their time, used meticulous workmanship and just blew our socks off! I left their works on display for weeks, and invited others to see them.

    Well, there was more, but I think you get the idea. The most important thing I learned from this was that we, as teachers, need to go much deeper with the important lessons, teach vital concepts more explicitly, develop lessons more thoroughly with many modes of experience, and cross-link the experiences we give our students. Learning is an evolution, shaped by experience. Teachers shape experience in the hope and expectation that deep, rich learning will follow. Sometimes it does.

    KT Pirquet

  • David Wees wrote:

    Thank you for sharing your experience KT! I am very interested as it seems to me that this works supports my suspicions about what makes an effective anti-bullying program.

  • Farrah Deese wrote:

    Thank you for sharing this! I just graduated from high school a couple of years ago, and I remember seeing many kids being bullied-not necessarily physically but mentally. This would always make me so mad, and I would always go out of my way to be friends with these students. Now that I am going to school to be a high school teacher, one of the things that I will absolutely not allow is bullying. I agree with you that it is important for teachers teach empathy and compassion, and I also feel that teachers should do this from leading by example.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *