Sorry for the lateness of this response: I’m sure many of you can connect with how stressful Grad school can be!
Growing up I was a pretty skinny kid until I hit junior year of high school. I was 6’ 2” and 160 pounds soaking wet. Safe to say I wasn’t the kid in the gym pressing 300 pounds. Then I started to grow into my frame pretty quickly. But before then, like most kids, I would get the occasional teasing: for wearing glasses, for not being as tall as everyone else, etc etc. It’s part of going to school: everyone knows what it feels like to be left out sometimes (some more than others). But, I didn’t have a facebook account in high school: it wasn’t that popular yet. But, I think for adolescents these days with a social networking account there is a huge downside: the potential for bullying. I think teenagers see sites like facebook and myspace as a digital image-broadcaster. You get to select what information the world sees about you and try to make people see you the way you want to be seen. Insecurity is synonymous with being young and you just want to feel accepted. Hence, you post pictures, write things, and friend people who correlate to that message you are trying to send. When you are young, you are self conscious, and putting yourself out there is taking a risk. So what happens when you get made fun of, outside the context of school, and online, where everyone can see it? What if someone writes on your wall that you are fat and ugly, and then all of a sudden all of your friends can see it? Kids can be brutal to each other, and I don’t know what is worst, being left out in gym class and being picked last for the kickball team, or having someone you thought was your friend leave some nasty comment on a picture of you.
So what should we do about it? There is no way we are going to stop the younger generation from creating accounts on facebook or myspace. And yes, there is no way you are going to stop the bullying. But there are steps we can take to curb it and help students feel more accepted. The best place to start is in the classroom. Bullying starts when you misunderstand someone. You have your friends and you usually stick together. But that band kid over there seems different and he’s probably more likely to get picked on by someone outside of his clique, just like anyone else. As a teacher, it is your responsibility to not only teach students a subject, but also life skills, which includes how to communicate and understand others. Why is it that large corporations have team building exercises and churches and clubs have outings and retreats? You get to know those associated with you and you build friendships. Volunteering is a great way to get students to work together, and build confidence. It feels great when you do something positive. And it feels even better when you work together with someone to accomplish that goal. Too often, we make students compete with each other: over grades, over starting positions on the football team, over who can win the most awards. That’s how kids get left out. It’s amazing to me that we recognize how painful it can be to be a teenager but yet create opportunities for failure in comparison to their peers. When I was student teaching, I had this student named Jimmy in one of my economic classes. I actually work with him at Wegmans on the weekends. I remember one day we were working on supply and demand shifters and he just put his head down and gave up. I worked with him in his free periods for days trying to get him ready for the test. He did not pass, and he felt terrible about it because he was comparing himself to the rest of the class. But at the end of my time at his school, I got a card from him and his girlfriend (who was in one of my other classes) saying how much they appreciated the fact that I didn’t give up on them and how they really felt special even though they weren’t the top student in the class (I still have that card; things like that are the greatest gifts ever!). I’m not saying we need to create an environment where there is no sense of achievement. In fact, I think by taking the competition out of school, you are creating a greater chance for the feeling of success. But it’s when we start to push this image of success/failure in schools that we start to separate kids, and it’s that separation that causes bullying.
My brother had a friend in high school who tragically took his life. As a member of Active Minds (a group that promotes mental health awareness) I am constantly saddened by the news of individuals who make the same choice because they are “different” due to their sexuality, their looks, or their disabilities. We need to start helping our youth feel comfortable with who they are, so they’ll start feeling comfortable with each other. Teach to succeed, not just academically, but socially as well. I’d love to hear your comments: how can we stop bullying in class and outside of class on the internet?