Bullied? Don't tell the teacher

Veronica Birkett says staff need training to help them counsel bullies and their victims
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The Independent Online
"Our school has a bullying policy, so how come I'm still bullied?" These words from a secondary-school pupil who had been subjected to intermittent bullying for more than three years, will, no doubt, strike a chord with many young people similarly abused and despairing.

Most schools are aware of the problems bullying creates and devote much time to devising policies to deal with the situation. It seems, however, that many of these policies are ineffective. Indeed, bullying is a growing, rather than a diminishing, problem.

Schools also suffer the side-effects of bullying, since the victims will often achieve poor academic results, become withdrawn and stay away from school. They experience school as a threatening ordeal, rather than a fulfilling opportunity. So, if policies don't work, why don't they, and what else can be done?

As a teacher, but also a qualified and experienced counsellor, I was invited to act as facilitator to a group of secondary school pupils who had been bullied in school. The group met weekly for a term, and this proved to be as much a learning situation for me as for them. They learnt how to deal with bullies; I learnt that most of the time these young people never reported when they were bullied.

I came to the conclusion that schools have no real idea of the extent of the problem. How can they when most of the time incidents aren't reported? The victims found that reporting a bullying incident was too risky, because so many teachers mishandled the situations, and the repercussions were often worse than the incident itself.

"Mishandled" indicated one of two responses. First, the teacher might suggest that the complaining child ignore the bully, sit down and get on with some work. This might make the child experience further humiliation and despair, as well as feeling unsafe. It is difficult to produce your best work in a threatening situation, and it would seem that the teacher is taking sides with the bully, since no attempt is made to confront the behaviour, possibly because the teacher has a fear of the bullying. These teachers need support and training in dealing with disruptive behaviour. Where, in a bullying policy, is this provided? And will such teachers admit they have a problem? Indeed, are they aware of the effect this response has on a pupil?

Alternatively, the teacher might humiliate the bully in front of the whole class. Later, out of the class my group members reported experiencing further threats from the bully, and jibes from other class members for being a "baby". Again, these teachers need support and training, because although they must have felt the situation had been dealt with, it had actually been made worse.

I began to understand why most incidents remain unreported, and how schools therefore become a breeding ground for bullies. The class came up with what they considered would be the ideal solution:

bullying incident reported to teacher;

teacher to approach bully, and invite to a meeting later that day. No reason given at this stage. Victim also to be invited;

at the meeting, each person to give an account of the incident, and their feelings about it, including the teacher's observations;

teacher to act as mediator, showing no preferential treatment to either child, and to suggest ways in which the situation could be dealt with;

bully/victim between them then to come up with the solution. No pressure put on either for apologies at this stage;

a further meeting to be arranged seven days ahead, when progress can be assessed.

Confidentiality is crucial to the success of this meeting, and must not be discussed with anyone, except parents. Such a meeting would enable all to leave feeling OK, not victimised or patronised, and given responsibility for their own behaviour. The bully has not been bullied into submission, the victim has not been rescued and disempowered. The teacher has acted as a support to both, and a new understanding has been established.

The way towards a solution to bullying comes from developing the counselling skills of the teacher, and raising awareness of their role in preventing such behaviour. If teachers are unwittingly contributing to the incidence of bullying, what good is a "bullying policy"? There is a need for whole staff training days to provide these skills, and raise awareness. Only then can schools really address the problems created by bullying.

When the parents pick on the teachers, a school suffers

It all began when a new family - let's call them the Smiths - came to live in the village. Their children joined the village school, and it looked as if they were going to become valuable members of the community. Then things started to go wrong. One of the children came home from school with a bruise, and Mr and Mrs Smith became concerned about behaviour in the playground.

The headteacher was not aware of any problems but, in response to the Smiths' concerns, she launched a "good behaviour" programme, driving home messages of kindness and consideration for others. But the Smiths were not satisfied, and began to talk to other parents. They named specific children as bullies, and said nothing was done to curb them. One parent in particular - let's call her Mrs Jones - became convinced that her child was also being bullied.

Before long, the school gate became an uncomfortable place. Mrs Smith began a campaign, approaching parents for their support, and cutting them dead if they did not give it. At a meeting with a class teacher to discuss the progress of one of their children, the Smiths again broached the subject of bullying. Mrs Smith refused to wait for the return of the head, who was away, and became highly emotional, haranguing the teacher, and even attempting to block her way out of the room.

Mrs Smith went home and wrote a letter to the Director of Education. The letter painted a picture of aggressive and uncaring teachers, corrupt governors, and unchecked playground bullying. Following this letter, and in spite of it, the school tried to reassure the Smiths. The governors and the headteacher reviewed again every aspect of playground behaviour and supervision. But in the end they concluded that there was nothing wrong. The chairman of the governors wrote to the Smiths to this effect, and received an unpleasant reply.

Meanwhile, Mrs Jones had become highly emotional. On one occasion, she stormed into a classroom and subjected a teacher to intimidating verbal abuse. On another, she shouted at a teacher when a child fell over in front of her own mother before school had even begun. In the end, she was warned that she would be banned from the school premises if another such outburst occurred.

One curious feature of these parents' behaviour was their expectation that their relationships with teachers would be unaffected. "They launch a tirade against you on Monday," one of the teachers remarked, "but expect you to smile and behave quite normally to them on Tuesday." Deadlock appeared to have been reached. But then, to everyone's tremendous relief, the news came that the Smiths were removing their children from the school. By that time there were signs that, away from Mrs Smith's influence, Mrs Jones was coming to see things in a more rational light.

Staff and governors are still shocked that these events could happen in our well-ordered, successful village school. Parents, particularly articulate people like the Smiths, have tremendous power. They can easily blacken a school's or a teacher's name, without actually having any concrete evidence of faults. In this case the school bent over backwards, probably too far, to address the grievances of one set of parents. The overwhelming majority of parents are responsible people to whom a school must always listen, but a school's governing body must also support its staff. If it does not, their job becomes impossible, and the whole school community can be torn apart. This very nearly happened to us.

The author is a school governor.