"Bullying presents one of the greatest health risks to children, youth, and young adults in U.S. society today. School safety, including the prevention of bullying, is a top national priority and a key area of academic research” (American Educational Research Association, 2017). This statement by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) launched October as National Bullying Prevention Month and reinforced the group’s imperative to remain “steadfast in advancing solutions and examining ways to prevent bullying, promote safety, and encourage inclusion throughout the country” (2017). Although the blight of bullying in schools has gained increasing attention over the past several years, the phenomenon is a darkness that has stained K-12 schools for generations. The AERA has complied a comprehensive list of resources documenting the issues
Although research over the past three decades has brought important attention to the issue of bullying, most has produced aggregated data that “overlook the exciting potential of narrative and autoethnographic inquiries—inquiries that foreground first-person narratives of bullying, and in ways that stress a culturally situated and contingent understanding of the issue” (Berry & Adams, 2016, p. 52). Through autoethnography, researchers can use personal experiences to link “the personal and cultural, the micro and the macro, and the private and the public” (Berry & Adams, 2016, p. 52). To that end I proffer a personal vignette, followed by a brief discussion of bullying in relation to the moral imperatives of educational leadership and a call to educational leaders to share personal stories.
I entered Orange Pines Jr. High as a disheveled seventh grader - pimpled, gangly, awkward, introverted, and insecure. Four years earlier my mother had died, sending our domestic world into chaos. My father had remarried into what quickly proved to be a dysfunctional morass. I retreated into books, where I vicariously cavorted with heroes from both history and fiction.
I was thus unprepared to face Peter Smith, whom I remember to this moment I didn’t have classes with him and had no connection to him. For reasons I still do not understand, however, he singled me out. During random mornings when we were standing around, waiting for the school doors to open, he would come up to me and, with no provocation, push me in the chest. When I didn’t respond, he would push me again. He would repeat this sequence several times until he got bored, or the bell rang to go to class.
At the start of each event, students would quickly form a circle around us. I don’t remember much else. I don’t recall if he said anything, or if anyone else did. I know I didn’t. I remember being awash in humiliation, fear, guilt, and anger. Since I didn’t have any precedent, I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t do anything. No one intervened – neither adults nor students. The kids around me, some who were my friends, knew. Adults should have known. I never thought to report the incidents to an adult or speak to a counselor, and so I lived in shame, dreading my next encounter with Peter Smith.
I had been raised as a pacifist, without violence or screaming. We attended church regularly, and I was a naïve, impressionistic sort who took to heart Jesus’ directive to turn the other cheek. Perhaps all that adolescent angst exposed my vulnerability and made me a tempting target. Regardless, I was glad when, at the end of the eighth grade, my father’s divorce predicated a move for us, away from Orange Pines Jr. High and away from Peter Smith.
In my new school, I became involved in interscholastic sports. I joined the football team and ran track. I started lifting weights and found success as a wrestler. Probably all that activity generated more self-confidence and reduced my vulnerability. I don’t know. But I never was the victim of a bully again.
I have often wondered whatever happened to Peter Smith. As a late adolescent contemplating my future, I fantasized that I would become a powerful judge, executive, or politician. Just as Joseph’s brothers sought his help during a famine, ignorant that they were standing before the brother they betrayed (Genesis 42: 1-23), Peter would come to me. He would need something important from me, he would plead, and I would exact my revenge. I did become a boss – a school principal – but I never encountered Peter Smith. While age has dulled the pain he inflicted, I wonder how his own experiences shaped his life.
My personal experience with bullying did affect my approach as a school administrator to such incidents. I always felt empathy for the victim and was vigilant in pursuing the aggressor. Such approaches can be framed by ethics of care and justice (Starratt, 2012; Begley, 2006; Begley & Johansson, 2003; Noddings, 1996). I came to see, also, that the issue is much more complex than I perceived it as an ignorant and awkward boy of 13. I have seen that in my all-white culture of the 1960s, my perceived weakness apparently made me a target. Perhaps even more vulnerable are those of other races or religions, those with disabilities, and those whose gender roles fall outside the norm.
School leaders, including classroom teachers, can illuminate this pervasive darkness by sharing their insights through personal stories, whether as childhood victims of bullying, as adult dispensers of care and justice, or both. Insight and awareness can drive care, justice, and change for all vulnerable groups within our schools.
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Begley, P.T. (2006). Self-knowledge, capacity and sensitivity: Prerequisites to authentic leadership by school principals, Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 44(6), 570 – 589. Doi: 10.1108/09578230610704792
Begley, P.T. & Johansson, O. (eds.) (2003). The ethical dimensions of school leadership. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Berry, K., & Adams, T. E. (2016). Family bullies. Journal of Family Communication, 16(1), 51-63. doi:10.1080/15267431.2015.1111217
Berry, K. (2016). Bullied: Tales of torment, identity, and youth (Vol. 18). Routledge.
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Starratt, R.J. (2012). Cultivating an ethical school. New York: Routledge.
Vickers, M. H. (2007). Autoethnography as Sensemaking: A Story of bullying. Culture & Organization, 13(3), 223-237. doi:10.1080/14759550701486555