A few years ago while I was the soccer coach at one American high school I was doing a technology project at another. The two districts were next to each other. One was a fairly wealthy and very small district with a reputation for great results on state achievement tests. The other was a much more diverse and much larger district with a middling reputation.
What I noticed, walking the corridors of both, was something very different. I noticed a radical difference in social and especially bullying behaviors.
Twitter can often get me thinking, and @nsharoff did this recently posting thoughts on her readings on school bullying. I responded to her thoughts by suggesting that perhaps the biggest impact on bullying behavior is created by the environment built by the adults who work in and surround the school. That is, the teachers, administrators, and parents.
And I said this because of what I saw in these two schools.
The bigger, poorer, less acclaimed high school was the far safer environment for kids perceived as "different." And this has no connection to size, or wealth, or academic achievement in my observed world. I've been in terrible big schools, and great small ones. Great diverse schools and awful diverse schools.
So, what makes the difference?
First, yes, environmental control. Better schools control stress environments better. Schools that are "safe" always have faculty in the corridors when kids are. Not just there, but "actively there," engaging the kids around them. Schools that are "safe" often also control noise, carpeted corridors seem really important, so that the din does not build its own chaos. They also often have natural light, and fewer student traffic "choke points" - those narrow doorways and stairwells which create chaotic physical places. In this case the big school had something else wonderful - a full 10 minutes between classes - which made the whole class changing experience a "safe time," rather than a desperate rush. And one more thing, the big school had its cafeteria at its core. Rather than being "off somewhere" everyone moved through this space, which was bordered by the office (the principal's office actually looked down on the cafeteria from the second floor), and the library. All of this meant that adults were far more engaged with students at leisure, and that students were far less stressed.
The small school had none of this. No carpets in the hallways which were lighted with buzzing and flashing old fluorescents, no teachers in the corridors either. A cafeteria hidden at the far end, far from everything, and many tight choke points that produced insanity on the stairs.
Still, none of that mattered most - at least in what I observed.
Now, this being the American Midwest, both schools had enormous football stadiums and very large gymnasiums, and both strongly celebrated their varsity athletics. But there were huge differences. The school which was "safe" also had a dramatic "performing arts center" and a huge library, these features held equal status architecturally with the sports facilities. The "unsafe" school had a small hidden library and no space at all for its acclaimed music and drama programs to perform (they usually did so off campus).
In the "unsafe" school only three of the district's many sports were celebrated - Boy's football and basketball and girl's volleyball. Before every one of those games parents would come into school and decorate lockers and there were frequent school time pep rallies. In the "safe" school every athlete pretty much got the same treatment, wrestling, soccer, the golf team. And there were also pep events (usually in the cafeteria during lunch periods) for the band, the Odyssey of the Mind team, Science Olympiad, etc.
I can't tell you that equal crowds watched boy's football and girl's soccer at either school, but I will tell you that at the "safe" school the principal and many teachers attended almost every sports event, and came to the OM competition as well.
In four years of coaching boy's soccer the principal at the "unsafe" school was at one half of one game. No one came to the Odyssey of the Mind event (I coached a team there as well). Teachers avoided "minor sports" events as well.
These might seem like small things, but they are not. Adolescents pick up their social clues not just from their peers, but heavily from the adult environment which surrounds them. In one school the adult message was all about social hierarchy: the district began this in Kindergarten when photos of those boys on the youth football teams and those girls on the youth cheerleading squads were put up in the primary school's entrance. And it reinforced the message constantly that some students were more prized than others. In the other school a very wide range of accomplishment was celebrated at every age level, and this was made very clear at the high school level.
Adults, when speaking of bullying, love to discuss peer pressure and child and adolescent communities. In my view this is much like those running America's educational system choosing to blame teachers, students, and parents - it is blame shifting - away from those who create the matrix - to those who must live within it.
Bullying behavior among those of school age is based on children reading - accurately - the adult world around them. If the President of the U.S. gets to bully smaller nations which he dislikes, if adult bosses are allowed to bully employees, if people on adult reality shows are celebrated for their role as bullies, kids imitate those behaviors.
And if the community of adults surrounding a school declares that certain students are more valued, more prized, than others, a template for bullying has been formed.
It is a fascinating observation that in a survey of bullying in Toronto students noted that they were twice as likely to be bullied in a supervised school situation as they were in unsupervised locales. That survey also noted that the further into the school year the students traveled, the less likely either other students or adults were to intervene. In other words, school seems to encourage bullying, and to develop an acceptance of bullying.
Of course. Education-as-we-know-it is about building hierarchies - among athletes, with grading, via teacher preferences, according to inherited wealth and parental power. When schools rank students, schools create unbalanced power relationships among students, and unbalanced power relationships are the cornerstone of bullying.
Making safe schools for all is not the work of children. It is the work of adults. And the most effective way to limit bullying among students is for adults to build a world which does not model that behavior.
- Ira Socol
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children