When Students Egg On a Bully . . . And What to Do About It

Why, I often wondered, do bullies gain a following? I could see why kids might not have enough courage to defend a victim, why they would slip right by a bully event and disappear down the hall. Bullies, after all, are scary. But what made kids join in the taunts and applaud pushing and punching?

After decades of teaching them all—the victims and the bullies and their fans, here’s my take on what students think as they egg on a bully:

  • I’m not alone: Most would-be bullies have been victims themselves. And since misery is easier to bear when others are miserable in the same way, watching another victim suffer brings consolation. The Germans call it schadenfreude—this finding pleasure in the pain of others.
  • I’m mad: Fans of bullies borrow the anger and language of the bully. If they were brave enough, they’d do what the bullies do and say what the bullies say. So watching and applauding is cathartic, but it’s also safe. Only the bully will get in trouble.
  • I’m tough: Since triumph demands an audience, bullies seldom work without a crowd. And the students who cheer from the sidelines participate in vicarious victory. This, in their minds, elevates their status.

So with these attractions, how do you keep a bully from poisoning the well, from spreading violence across a school?

I found only one answer for this, an approach that seems counterintuitive: to love the bully.

Generally, I didn’t talk to a class about an individual student. But I broke this rule when bullies made high-profile moves. If something is already public, not talking about it contributes to its violence.

“You know,” I said, the morning after John shoved Kamhar up against the locker and spat in his face, “I care about all of you. That’s why I’m teaching you. I care about Kamhar, and what happened to him is wrong, not to be tolerated.”

Students expected this much, but I wasn’t finished. I told them I also cared about John. Suspended, he couldn’t hear my words, though he would later, from his buddies.

“Someone who does what John did,” I said, “has something broken inside. So it’s up to the rest of us to help him.”

We’d talk together about how students see and hear what teachers don’t, how their voices in defending each other are stronger than teachers’ words, and how positive peer pressure wins over school discipline every time.

“Right now, you’re stronger than John,” I told them. “And so am I. So let’s use our strength to help him be good.”

To be honest, I was always surprised that this worked. But calling students to be change agents, seemed to pull them together to accomplish a tough task, even those who had cheered on a bully.

What To Do If You Aren’t Funny

I always wished I were a funny teacher. It seemed I was always teaching down the hall from side-splitting, knee-slapping jocular types. And with their antics, these teachers drew students into easy rapport. In their classes students wanted to pay attention—they never knew what was coming next. And they learned. Laugher, after all, produces endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters that open the brain for learning.

From down the hall, I’d listen to the laughter. I’d sit at my desk thinking about how seriously I took teaching and how I never could tell a joke. And I’d wonder how I could bring any kind of levity to my students. Well, I never did learn to tell a joke, but I found that, although I couldn’t be funny, I could be fun, and was that almost as good.

If you aren’t funny either, here are some tricks of the trade:

  • Borrow humor—If I didn’t have it in me, I could find it around me. So I added cartoons to my slides, read a witty story, or played a funny video clip.
  • Keep a sense of humor—Classrooms are full of craziness. But I learned that if I could change the frame—react to the absurdities in front of me with grace and lightness instead of with defensiveness, humor came into my classroom on its own, for free. Finding amusement in the tomfoolery of middle school students turned what could be conflict into a gift.
  • Laugh—Even if you can’t tell a joke, you can appreciate one. And what students care about more than a funny teacher is being funny themselves. Especially when the joke was on me, I learned not to take myself so seriously.
  • Be playful—Play is the brain’s favorite way to learn, and the best play is hard. This is why people labor over the daily crossword puzzle in The Washington Post and why my grandchildren try endlessly to achieve the perfect bar spin on their scooters. My students learned more Greek and Latin roots through games than they ever did with a study sheet.

One day as a student was leaving my class, she turned back toward me at the door.

“You’re funny, Mrs. Swartz,” she said.

She was wrong, of course.

But I did learn to have fun with my students. And sometimes while they were laughing, I’d open the classroom door, hoping the funny teacher down hall would hear.

How to Read a Book . . . Or a Student

My students were my books. In them I found rising conflict and points of view and themes. As I read I learned about the characters in their lives and understood their settings. And the tones they took stirred my moods. Sometimes I could turn the pages quickly. But I often got stuck on a passage, not understanding what I read.

Having used this metaphor of teaching, I was intrigued when my son introduced me to a new term this week—charitable reading. It’s what he teaches his college history students to do when they pick up a book.

“Don’t read with an eye to see how quickly you can refute or dismiss,” he tells them. “Try to understand, to put the best gloss on the writings of others.”

Instead of rushing through their readings, he wants his students to read with thoughtfulness and care.

Too often, I failed do this with students, making snap judgements instead.

I’d see a student staring out the window and assume apathy. A missing assignment would turn my mind toward sloth. I’d take clowning around and throwing things and sleeping in class as personal affronts.

I wasn’t reading deeply. Take style, for example. Style is how authors display themselves to readers, how readers get to know authors. Likewise, when I ignored students’ styles, I couldn’t become familiar with their thinking. And when I disregarded context, isolating what students did and said from the milieu of their lives, I lost meaning.

But when I did manage to read charitably, when I put the best gloss on the lives of my students, something magical happened—my students usually turned it around. They took the effort to read me, to treat me with thoughtfulness and care. And so I could teach, and they could learn.

Ich Hoffe!

“Hey, Grandma,” Benjamin said to me the other day. “Want to learn German with me?”

Actually, I wasn’t looking for another challenge. My days have felt full with writing and Zoom meetings and running errands for my pandemic-bound elderly parents and volunteering. Benjamin must have noticed my hesitancy because he pressed on.

“Just get on Duolingo,” he said. “You’ll be amazed at what you can learn in ten minutes a day.”

Benjamin, I found when I logged onto Duolingo’s website, had grasped their approach to learning—a little every day. And I recognized this as what, in education, we call spaced learning.

These frequent, bit-sized pieces of learning bring great benefit to students, helping them—

  • To start—Doing something two hours is reason for procrastination; doing something for ten minutes is manageable.
  • To concentrate—By the end of the ten minutes when attention evaporates anyway, it’s over.
  • To remember—Daily practice builds up myelin around brain nerves like a superhighway, making it easier to retrieve information.
  • To enjoy—Time is up before initial enthusiasm dies, and the lesson seems almost like a game.

Even in classes that lasted over an hour, I tried to use spaced learning by changing the texture of the class every ten minutes or so—from individual to group work, from reflection to action, from verbal to spatial, and from heavy to light.

I found that spaced learning worked with my students.

And now Benjamin has given me the chance to try it on a sixty-five-year-old brain.

Ich hoffe!

From Behind a Mask

When you think about it, a smile is a funny thing. Why would turning up the corners of your mouth and showing your front teeth lift moods and relieve stress? But this flexing of mouth muscles works. Smiling, according to research cited by Ron Gutman in Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act, brings more pleasure to the brain than even chocolate.

Smiling, I found on tough teaching days, made me and my students feel better. And since smiles prompt smiles, students smiled back at me, which made us all feel even better. I’ve got to admit that often I forced my smiles. But even fake smiles can trick your brain into thinking you are happy. We’ve long known that the brain controls the body. But we’re also learning how much the body controls the brain. And smiles, even fake ones, release feel-good neurotransmitters that help teachers teach and students learn.

And now mouths are masked.

“How can I start the school year,” a young teacher asked me, “when I can’t even smile?”

The good news is that she can. There’s a smile a mask can’t cover—well, at least not the whole smile. A Duchenne smile does more than lift the corners of the mouth. It rises higher on the face and above the borders of a mask, lifting the check bones and crinkling into crows’ feet around the eyes. And though this is the smile of true enjoyment, it too, scientists have found, can be faked until it is genuine.

Just down the road at the school where I taught before I retired, students are beginning school. And in front of them are masked teachers, my former colleagues. I know these teachers, worried as they are about this school year, don’t feel like smiling. But I know they will. It’s what teachers do—whatever it takes to get brain neurons firing. It will just take a bigger smile this year.

Beyond Peacekeeping

I can’t spin a ping pong ball, but I can defeat my son—sometimes. And he’s good. He controls the battle, smashing the ball over the net and slicing it through the air. When I play David, I spend the whole game trying to stay alive.

But I’m good, too. I concentrate on not missing, on keeping the ball on the table longer than David. I let him take the risks, responding to his wonder shots with well-controlled returns until he loses command of the ball.

Occasionally my patience wins out over his daring action.

And this defensive stance has always been my first instinct in classroom management. I wait for students to make false moves and then apply one of the strategies I’ve collected through the years—group a rabble-rouser with quiet students, perch on a stool by a fidgety kid during a read aloud, or separate hostile students across the far ends of the classroom. And in these ways I avoid conflict, keeping the peace.

But I’m not really building peace. My well-controlled returns to rowdy students smooth out dynamics in my classroom, but they aren’t equipping students to turn themselves toward peacemaking. So gradually I’ve built my repertoire of proactive strategies. Here are a few:

  • Facilitate conflict resolution: Teach skills like asking questions and using I language and not interrupting. Help dueling students to have honest and fair conversations and to see that disagreement doesn’t have to equal disrespect.
  • Tell and read stories: A large base for peace building is empathy. And stories give students a mirror, helping them see empathy in themselves. I’ve seen the eyes of bullies smart with unexpected tears in the moment of a story. And this sudden surge of compassion can be a bridge for reconciliation in real life.
  • Work toward shared goals. When students aren’t focused forward, they look sideways for trouble. Coat drives in the winter, food drives in the spring, group letters to a classmate whose dad died, competitions with another class—all these pull students into a classroom team.
  • Practice calming skills: Learning to regulate emotion under stress is hard. So when pressure escalates from a fight in the hallway or chaos in the lunchroom, or a bomb threat, model calming skills. Quit talking to have students write or draw in journals or listen to music or turn down the lights. Now and then, whisper to them, something reassuring and hopeful.

Keeping peace in a classroom is important, but peace building is vital.

One-Second Looks

I could feel it in their eyes. They’d look at me—a Mennonite girl in braids and a long skirt with a covering on my head—and they’d think they knew all about me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this thinking that members of other groups are all the same is called out-group homogeneity.

To others, I may have looked meek and mild, even though I wasn’t. And I had them fooled. I couldn’t cook like my friend Carol or sing alto like Rhoda or play volleyball like Eli. So under eyes that figured me out in one second, I felt trapped.

Perhaps this is why I worked so hard to help my students see beyond stereotypes. When town kids thought lake kids were snobs and lake kids called town kids shiftless, I tried to get them to know each other. And I was clear with my messages—many girls are good at math, many gifted kids are socially adept, many special education kids show courage and creativity, many bullies have hidden tender sides, and many perky cheerleaders are fighting monumental battles.

But I discovered during an after-school Walmart stop, that with all my moralizing, I was forgetting to check my own prejudices. I was tired that afternoon from wrangling students and hearing about test scores and answering emails from parents. All I wanted was peace. Which I wasn’t going to get, I could see, because the service desk where I was headed was surrounded by a pack of kids.

Dressed in layers of black with white makeup slathered across their faces and their hair long, they were trading jabs and laughing raucously. Probably over some coarse joke I decided. Legs spread wide, feet planted, they clearly owned the space between me and the service desk. Instead of working afternoon jobs, here they were loitering at Walmart, intimidating people like me.

I actually stopped walking toward them, when I caught myself. Just that morning, I had mediated when one kid called another a prep and that kid returned the name calling by yelling, “Punk!”

And though, I hadn’t said a word aloud, my mind there in the Walmart lobby was full of bigotry. What I had seen in my students that morning, I now found in myself.

So, I took a step forward and then another.

Suddenly, I heard my name and found myself in a hug. These were my former students. These were John and Riley and Milan and Spike.

And what had I done to them? Judged with my eyes, figured them out in one second, trapped them in a stereotype.


Feeling the Pain of a Pandemic School Year

I’m having lunch with a teacher tomorrow. She stopped by my porch to invite me. And we agreed to bring take-out to an outdoor, socially-distanced meal.

“I want to talk about school starting up,” she said, “and her eyes had a wild, darting kind of a look.

I wish I could come to that lunch tomorrow with some gifts—words of wisdom or reassurances or a bag of tricks for this unprecedented school opening.

But I’ve talked with other teachers on walks around town and on Zoom and on the telephone, and they’re all saying the same thing—that nothing seems right for this school year. It feels wrong to bring students back to school and wrong to keep them home and wrong to do a hybrid—to keep them home one day and bring them back the next.

The good teachers I know have always calmed their before-school jitters by preparing and then preparing some more. But this year, teachers don’t know how to get ready for school—except they are quite sure they will need a stock pile of masks and cans of disinfectant. That is, unless they never enter their classroom doors.

Having taught for thirty years, I’m used to sharing what I’ve learned with younger teachers. But this year, I don’t know the answers. This year’s teachers are going where I haven’t been.

What they need from me is not a list of effective techniques, not the steps to solve the problems of a pandemic school year. They don’t need the pressure of my words.

Instead, they need me to listen to this new story in education, to feel the pain of teaching in a pandemic year, to grieve with them, to recognize how hard it is when the old world changes before the new one can be seen.

When Emotions Run High

I’ve seen tempers explode right in the middle of class—hackles up, fists bunched, and bitter words thrown across the room. These high-running emotions always daunted me. After all, most of my students had larger bodies than I did and louder voices and a greater willingness to take a swing. I obviously couldn’t fight might with might.

So how could I keep misdirected passion from hijacking my class?

Here’s a simple series of interventions that worked . . . at least sometimes.

  1. Start with action. Countering emotion with emotion usually escalates emotion. And logical thinking doesn’t work, either. When the amygdala—the emotional part of the brain—is activated, the reasoning brain shuts down. But when action meets emotion, there’s a chance.

I had a list of options I used: Sit down. Meet me in the hall. Take this attendance sheet to the office. Go get a drink.

A student may not be able to control rage. But sitting down or taking a few steps toward the hall. . . maybe.

  1. Continue with thinking. “Here,” I’d say, handing a student paper and pencil. “Write. Tell me what happened.”

And students usually wrote several pages, the first half sheet usually full of a heavy jerking scrawl. Further down, the script often lightened and smoothed out. And the content became more reasonable. I could see evidence of logic flowing through the brain, once again.

  1. End with emotion. Now that blood was flowing through the whole brain, students could express emotion in helpful ways. It was at this point and in private that I tried to draw out emotion.

“How do you feel,” I’d ask, “about what happened back there?”

And students were usually able to articulate with greater clarity and more understanding.

With many old routines upended, with uncertainties about Covid-19, and with new rules about masks and distancing, the start of this year is sure to bring heightened emotion. Perhaps this process of moving from action to thinking to emotion can help.