/ 10 April 2015

It takes a village to stop bullying

Graphic: John McCann
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

Last month’s Teachers Upfront focused on giving teachers strategies to ­handle the emotionally and ­sociologically difficult issue of bullying. It’s a common practice, on the increase in South Africa’s schools, and the growing phenomenon of ­cyberbullying means the issue is becoming increasingly complex.

Cyberbullying starts as young as grade R and routinely takes place well beyond school hours and outside the perimeter of the school. Research demonstrates that screen time correlates with bullying, and increases the likelihood of being a victim and a perpetrator. Bullying is notoriously difficult to handle and it is not always easy to predict that it will take place or to pre-empt it, but teachers undoubtedly play a key role in counteracting it and must have the ability to do so.

Dr Moeniera Moosa, of the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Education, described four characters in a bullying situation in a school. “One of the characters is the bully, who first does a test run and gains confidence. Then there is the victim, who blames himself and tries to avoid the bullying. The bystander is the third character. This can be an individual but is usually a group of children who look on. Then finally there is the teacher.”

Moosa said “teachers may wittingly or unwittingly contribute to bullying by their actions, by not following up on reports or by their attitudes towards bullying” and so it was vital that teachers were helped not only to become aware of what behaviours are most likely to coexist with and encourage bullying but also to develop strategies to counteract it.

She pointed out that bullying often happened outside the classroom – in the toilets and the open grounds in school areas where a teacher’s presence needs to be visible. Moosa said there must be a no-bully zone in a school as a place of safety for all pupils. She also suggested giving bystanders a protocol of what to do and how to be effective bystanders.

Dr Lara Ragpot of the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education reiterated the agency of teachers in dealing with bullying and said communication between teachers and pupils was key to counteracting it.

Gauging freedom
“A teacher’s words and actions can contribute to the cycle of bullying, and through your actions – by either ignoring or acting on bullying – your learners will gauge how much freedom they have to engage in bullying.”

She said the victim and the bully needed help and that the teacher was often the only role model to both, so an open-door policy was important for the support of the bullied and the perpetrators.

“Show them how to resolve conflict; at school they can practise social skills but they often need to be shown what to do,” Ragpot said. She agreed with Moosa’s point that “the teacher also needs to be informed about what happens during playtime and what happens when learners leave the classroom as this is often when bullying happens”.

Ragpot emphasised that “it is hard for victims to disclose and that teachers should handle this with care because often victims feel a deep sense of shame and that the bullying is their fault; it is important to assure them this is not the case.”

Teachers should “create a support system, start a buddy system, check in regularly with learners and call them in after class regularly, but also attend to the perpetrators and allow them to tell their stories”, said Ragpot.

One strategy is to get pupils to act out scenarios: “Role-play activities are good for both victims and perpetrators; let them practise different responses and behaviours.”

Whole school approach
It is not just the responsibility of the teacher to handle bullying, though. Ragpot suggested the whole school stand together in an anti-bullying campaign. “Make anti-bullying posters, sign class pledges, set up positive activities that promote unity and get parents on board as parental support is vital and they must be kept informed.”

She urged schools to ask parents to keep an eye open for changes in children’s behaviour, such as sleep and eating patterns or displays of aggression. She added that teacher training programmes should include approaches to dealing with bullying.

Anthony Meyers, director for psychosocial support at the Gauteng department of education, described the department’s programmes, interventions and strategies for effective classroom management. He recommended a whole school approach to countering bullying because it was important to nip this behaviour in the bud and to do so consistently. “Strategies to counteract it will only be effective if they are synergised with the overall programme of the school.”

He went on to say that “the key role player in terms of doing consequence management is the school governing body” and that school-based support teams could ensure that the full school community was involved.

The ­department provides training on addressing bullying and making schools safe environments that are conducive to learning and teaching. They also have a dedicated ­bullying programme for parents and a Childline call centre and counselling service for pupils (0800 055 555). The Childline programme is being reviewed with a view to expand it.

Teachers have an Employee Support Programme for workplace difficulties (080?061?1169, or send a “call me” to 071 119 2463).

Meyers pointed out that “when a learner says I am abused, there is an obligation on the teacher to report and provide support; this is enshrined in law. It is important to know and work with your school’s policy, and then in turn have your own policies, communicate them to parents and become an advocate for anti-bullying.”

The audience at the seminar spoke about not only their challenges with handling ­bullying in their schools but also the interventions that had worked.

It was agreed that there was a need for more psychological support in schools and that many of the issues that cause teacher burnout had to do with administration and dealing with discipline rather than with teaching and learning.

A need was expressed for more active campaigns to support teachers and that more psychologists be brought in for teachers and pupils.

One principal said that schools themselves were the target of bullies in many areas: “Schools and libraries are soft targets and we have to address this from within society; we are changing our school but the community is a problem.”

Another principal spoke of the positive effect the South African Police Service community liaison officer has had in his school.

Meyers confirmed that the principal was vital to countering bullying: “If principals become a champion, an intervention tends to be a success; principals are always key.”

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief ­executive officer of the Bridge education network. The ­Teachers Upfront series of seminars is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of ­Witwatersrand’s school of education and the ­University of Johannesburg’s ­faculty of education

World’s best teacher doesn’t care about test scores or exam

Nancie Atwell’s school in rural Maine, United States, is no ordinary place of learning. Then again, Atwell is no ordinary teacher.

At her school, all classrooms have libraries, standardised tests are forbidden, classes are small, every religious and cultural holiday is ­celebrated and pupils pick the topics they write about and the books they read. 

And read they do: her students wolf down about 40 books a year, well above the American national average. 

Last month Atwell was named the winner of a competition to find the world’s best teacher. She accepted the Global Teacher Prize, dubbed “the Nobel Prize of teaching”, at a ceremony in Dubai. It is worth $1-million, which Atwell donated to the Centre for Teaching and Learning, the nonprofit demonstration school she founded 25 years ago. 

She said the centre was in need of structural upgrades, including a new roof and furnaces and many more books. “We will have a very healthy book-buying fund,” Atwell said. 

“It’s the thing we never have enough of.” Her prolific teaching career spans four decades and several school districts. 

She is also the author of nine books for teachers, including In the Middle, which sold half a million copies. 

Her goal, she said, was to make the classroom a place for “wisdom and happiness”, rather than one of stress and frustration. 

She began teaching in New York state in 1973. But, she realised, pupils weren’t “hooked” on the books or writing assignments. She began researching alternative teaching methods and stumbled on the work of Donald Graves, a University of New Hampshire professor of early childhood education credited with pioneering the Writing Workshop teaching method that Atwell dedicated her career to improving. 

Writing Workshop is a teaching framework that champions student choice and self-expression. 

In Atwell’s classroom, children choose their own books and writing topics, advance at their own pace and spend one-on-one time with teachers. This discovery revolutionised her classroom. 

“When I let go of my last bit of total control of everything in the classroom … they made wonderful choices, smart choices.” 

After New York, Atwell moved to Maine and in 1990 founded the centre. The school serves a maximum of 80 pupils, from nursery school to grade 8. Teachers work with pupils as fellow writers and readers. 

The majority of these pupils excel; 97% matriculate to college or university. Test scores and exam results, said Atwell, were “a business model that has no business being applied to the craft of teaching or the science of learning”. – Lauren Gambino © Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015