You ask the good kids in almost any class, and they’ll tell you who the bad kid is. This is the kid everyone points to when something goes wrong, the kid it’s okay to pick on, the kid outside the social circle, the kid who bears the brunt of group dissatisfaction—the scapegoat. If it weren’t for this kid, the class would be better.
But it isn’t usually this simple. Some classes seem to feel the need to produce a bad kid. The bad kid livens boring lessons, serves as the common enemy, and boosts the status of the good kids—making their antics seem harmless compared to the bad kid’s atrocities.
Bad deeds, of course, need consequences, but it’s when the narrative moves from a kid having a problem to a kid being the problem that scapegoating occurs. Someone, it seems, needs to be at the bottom so others can claim the top.
In a Dr. Seuss story, the bottommost turtle is Mack. Yertle, the king in the story, wants to see further, to increase his influence and so turtles, all stepping on the neck of poor Mack, pile themselves on top of him to create a higher throne. In pain Mack finally speaks to the top of the stack.
“I know up on top you are seeing great sights
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
Teachers often protect good kids from bad kids. But how can teachers also keep good kids from hurting bad kids—from blocking their sights and taking their rights? Here are some strategies:
- Help good kids see that the scapegoat’s problems are something in which the whole class participates. Ask questions of students who have trouble with a bad kid—are you helping or hurting Matt? Are you finding ways Matt can help you? Are you looking for good in Matt?
- Work against displacement. Help good kids see how the gap widens when bad kids are ostracized in the lunch room, not invited to parties, and ignored in the hallways. Encourage good kids to stop excluding and start including.
- Complicate students’ views of bad and good. Knocking a chair to a floor is bad, yes. But so is the rolling of eyes, a judging attitude, and a looking-down from the top of the heap.
In the Yertle, the Turtle, story, no one listens to Mack, down there on the bottom. So Mack takes further measure:
“That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had
And that plain little lad got a little bit mad
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing
He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king!”
We’ve read too many times in the news about measures bottommost students have taken. And good kids can play a reaching role—to help and not hurt.