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Monday, October 22, 2012

Bullying Fatigue

Someone once said to me, "Don't you get tired of talking about bullying in the work you do?"  The answer is "no" because I don't see myself as someone who just talks about bullying.  To me the problem of bullying is symptomatic of a deeper problem facing our schools, so I feel that what I talk about is changing schools for the better.    This is not an easy message to digest for many reasons:

  •   People can get more discouraged about the problem of bullying and what is needed to address it. 
  • The change is more extensive and substantive than the one required for addressing one problem.
  • The mindset and tools for making these changes are not readily accessible for many people in schools.
Ironically, the problem of bullying might just be the best opportunity that schools have for making substantive change in how students are educated.  John Kotter of Harvard University has written many books on the change process and he emphasizes one key element of change that is often lacking in many attempts to change any organization-a sense of urgency.  He says that data alone and rational arguments for change fail because they aim for people's heads and fail to touch their hearts.  True change when it does occur starts from the heart and then joins with the head .  (In my book, I describe this distinction of heart and head as will and skill.)   He qualifies his definition of urgency by stating that it can't driven by panic or fear but rather by  a sense caring and valuing the organization, i.e. the people, values, beliefs and principles of the group.

Right now the change mechanisms being employed are based upon raising levels of achievement measured by test scores with a sharper focus on improving the quality of teaching through stricter and more accountable evaluations based on rewards for teaching better and often dire consequences for not.  One could argue that these methods  also create of sense of urgency but I think it is not the urgency that Kotter describes.  They are designed to make teachers think less about the "we" and more about "me".  At at time when schools really need to work together as a community,  educational policy is almost forcing teachers to focus more on just themselves and their own well being.  Students who don't do well could more likely pose a threat to teachers.   A strong case could be made that these types of policy are designed to bully teachers into doing better.  (A type of bullying that is done to impress the general public demonstrating that those in positions of authority are getting tough and producing results.)

I don't see these ways of changing schools as even being truly effective( for reasons many others have accurately articulated). Bullying prevention presents a better opportunity for change for one very simple reason: it goes to the heart of why people became educators in the first place.  Michael Fullan describes this as "moral purpose".  I think that this is an untapped energy source that many policy makers don't even believe exists.  I do believe that educators care deeply about students and about helping them.  They might have been in systems that have buried this basic moral purpose but that doesn't mean that its not there or wasn't there at sometime.  If bullying prevention can be tied to the fundamental value and core belief of the importance of caring for students, I have to believe that people will do what needs to be done to meet this "sacred responsibility".  Tapping into this core belief (often buried deep) is not easy and requires strong and skillful leadership, but it is the only way to go.  It holds the greatest promise because it appeals to our higher aspirations as educators.  It is the positive urgency that Kotter describes because it is based upon caring and valuing people.  It can be a way of getting positive school change through the back door outside of the "change" initiatives advertised as such.

Bullying prevention is like getting a foot in the door to changing the direction of a school.  A strong leader can use the problem of bullying as an opportunity to change the direction of a school culture-it will be still be a long and challenging journey but at least it is one going in the right direction driven by a moral purpose.  A school community  starts the journey to address the problem of bullying but ends up changing the culture of the school where it becomes a more optimal place for learning for all of its members.  When bullying prevention takes that direction, bullying fatigue  is not something to worry about because too many other good and positive things will be happening.

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