‘The bullying started at the end of my grade six year. They began calling me names and making nasty comments about me. I felt bad. They never hit or pushed me; they just kept on saying things that were mean. It got worse when I was in grade seven. They would always do these things where teachers couldn’t see them. It was a group of boys in my class. I would be walking from one class to another and they would make comments about my mother behind me.”
Bullying in schools is a worldwide problem that impacts adversely on school climates and can have damaging lifelong consequences for pupils. Internationally there has been an extraordinary rise in interest in the phenomenon of bullying in the past three decades. Despite this worldwide interest, relatively little research has been carried out in South Africa.
Working under the supervision of veteran researcher Professor Pam Christie of the University of Cape Town, I investigated for my doctorate the extent and nature of bullying in a sample of Catholic schools, and specifically explored the relationship between bullying and the ethos of care in schools.
“They always seemed to pick on me,” the pupil I was interviewing continued.
“I tried to avoid them, to ignore them, but that didn’t seem to help. I eventually told my mother. She told the teachers. They got all of the pupils together and told them that this must stop. They made them write letters to apologise to me.
“The bullying stopped for about a month. But then they started again. I wasn’t scared, but was irritated and frustrated. I had made new friends by then, but the other boys kept following me. I tried to ignore them. But I was losing self-confidence and becoming unhappy and the teachers didn’t seem to care. One of the boys in the group phoned me at home one night and told me how sorry he was about the whole thing. But the others just kept coming after me.
“Eventually I told my parents that I did not want to go to school. After many discussions with the school, my parents took me out of school and I completed grade seven at home.”
An assumption tested in my doctoral study was that there would be less bullying in schools where pupils felt that teachers showed more care and concern towards them.
A questionnaire was developed for the South African situation to rapidly identify levels of bullying and care in schools, and the data was derived from 2 447 pupils, between the ages of nine and 14 across Gauteng.
The ethos of their schools
A completely revised “My Life in School” checklist developed in this study proved to be a valuable means for pupils to express their views on life in schools. The checklist gave pupils a rapid means to assess the ethos of their schools from their perspective. Schools could then use that data collected to address bullying and other shortcomings and to improve school climates.
The survey results found that bullying did take place in the Catholic schools in the sample, and that it took the range of forms identified in other research on school bullying: physical harm, threats, name-calling, ridicule and repetitive hurt of an emotional/psychological nature. Pupils experienced bullying by other pupils, and also by teachers.
The survey results also showed that pupils experienced care from other pupils as well as from teachers. The strongest and most consistent variable across the four indices of bullying and care was gender, with boys reporting significantly more bullying and girls reporting significantly more care.
The independent variable of home language (as a part-proxy for race) showed significant differences in some responses, with those speaking African languages reporting more bullying, and those speaking English reporting less care.
The more teachers bully the more pupils bully
Statistical analysis indicated that there was no direct correlation between the indices of bullying and indices of care. However, there was a correlation between the levels of care shown by teachers and the levels of care shown by pupils. In other words, for every unit of care shown by teachers there was a unit of care increase in pupil care. There was a similar correlation between the levels of bullying among pupils and the level of bullying by teachers – the more teachers bully the more pupils bully.
The work of political theorist Hannah Arendt provided the basic theoretical assumptions of the study, in particular her analysis of violence and her account of the capacity for human action. Arendt provides an account of a plural society in which human beings have the capacity to make and keep promises, and she argues also that human actions change thought. Using Arendt, schools are viewed as places of human action, and as such can model appropriate values and behaviour.
Schools in themselves cannot care. Leaders, teachers and pupils that shape the institution have to animate the caring ethos of a school. The teachers’ and pupils’ role in shaping a caring school cannot be underestimated. The significance of teacher behaviour – both bullying and care – in relation to pupil behaviour of bullying and care is an important finding of this study. It speaks to the important role of teachers in securing the wellbeing of pupils, and indeed to the importance of institutional culture in influencing the interactions of bullying and care.
Arendt’s concept of “natality” reminds us of the human capacity of renewal. For Arendt “natality” is the core of education: “People are constantly born into the world and are in need of introduction to that world and to one another.” Newcomers bring with them the possibility of renewal and hope – an ability to renew and to change the world.
Agency and transformation
A sense of agency is required in schools. Teachers and pupils must escape from the mind-set of being so weighed down by the context that they are unable to transform the schools they find themselves in. The weighed-down mind-set means that schools are trapped in the present and unable to create a new and a better world. Schools, and the people in them, need to unsettle the social processes that seem so entrenched.
Changing the way schools organise themselves in the South African context is not easy, but the following small steps may be helpful.
Firstly, schools as places need to be secured and made safer. On a practical level, fences and gates need to be fixed and access controlled. Care for premises is both practical and symbolic of a broader climate of care, and in this regard, litter needs to be cleared away, classrooms swept, cracked windows replaced and broken doors and handles repaired.
Secondly, teachers themselves need to model respectful behaviour to pupils, in how they themselves act as well as in their treatment of their pupils. They need to show pupils that there are consequences for bad behaviour and for breaking the rules.
More importantly, schools need to do away with the many of their own practices that foster violence. For example, using corporal punishment merely teaches children the negative values of degradation, force and humiliation – and must be stopped. Intimidation by leaders and teachers also needs to be avoided. Discipline is best carried out in ways that do not humiliate pupils publicly.
Because teaching and learning are central, and pupil performance is a measure for pupils of self-worth, each pupil needs to be assisted to achieve the best they can, and to know that the school cares about their achievement. Schools need to make sure that teaching time is used effectively, and that pupils of all abilities are engaged in their classrooms. Discouraged pupils also need to experience a sense of accomplishment and pupils’ efforts need to be recognised and rewarded.
School policies must ensure that the safety of pupils is ensured. The policies and codes of conduct that emerge from them must be communicated and understood by everyone in the school community. The codes need to be repeated as often as necessary, and pupils must be encouraged to follow the rules.
Behaving in a group
It is vitally important to teach pupils how to deal with conflict when it arises, and schools should not just expect pupils to solve all their problems on their own. More than ever it seems clear that learning how to behave in a group is an important life skill to be taught.
Changing school cultures is not easy. The revised “My Life in School” checklist may be a useful starting point for schools to review their own culture. This exercise requires effort and the ongoing support of teachers. But imagine the difference teachers can make to the lives of pupils if the quality of all relationships in schools can be improved – if pupils are seen and heard.
If schools are authentically democratic, safe and caring, they can be in a better position to be places that provide the building blocks for a sustainable democracy in South Africa.
Dr Mark Potterton is a teacher and the principal of Holy Family College, Parktown. This article is based on his recent PhD thesis, Seen and Heard: Listening to Children and Creating Caring Schools, awarded by the University of the Witwatersrand in January this yearTeachers and pupils must escape from the mind-set of being so weighed down by the context that they are unable to transform their schools