BULLYING: THE PUBLIC SECRET

My guest today, Lisa A Listwa, was a high school teacher for fifteen years and she has a LOT of great things to say about this topic.  I can’t even IMAGINE what being a teacher to teenagers is like.  I am good with my ONE kiddo at home.  Actually, who am I kidding?  I can barely keep up with her so I am in awe of good teachers and the service they do for all of us.

I have seen physical bullying and it is almost always apparent who the bully is.  I say almost because many times the kid you caught throwing the punch is the one being bullied.  Lisa has seen bullying go from the playground to the internet first hand.

In my opinion, rumors, are one of the fastest and meanest forms of bullying.  It starts with telling visible secrets where everyone laughs at the subject and ends with online torture campaigns.  Please, please, please teach your children how to distinguish the difference between news and rumors.

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BULLYING IS NOT AS OBVIOUS ANYMORE by Lisa A Listwa

When I was in school, bullies were pretty simple.

A bully was that big, tough kid who pushed you on the playground and took your lunch money. Maybe it was the cool kid who called you a nerd because you wore glasses and did well in school.  You didn’t hear people talking about how this girl or that boy was bullied so mercilessly that suicide seemed like the best way to stop it.  Was bullying less of a problem that it is today?  Has it gotten worse over the last few decades? Or is it simply that no one was talking about it?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. And most likely, no one does.

But I do know that bullying has come a long way from that big kid on the playground.

I spent fifteen years teaching high school age students and I have seen bullying in action far more often than I care to recall. I don’t have to tell you all the ways bullying manifests itself today. You have seen and heard the stories. You have likely seen it or know someone who has. Bullying wears so many different masks. It is everything from that big kid on the playground to the complicated cyber-bullying scenarios of today.

It’s complicated.

A major part of the problem today is that bullying is not obvious anymore. It’s sneaky. It’s far away from the eyes and ears of the playground or the lunchroom. It’s unsupervised and it’s invisible. Bullying has left the classroom and the playground and moved to social media. And that world is a place that eliminates the classroom educator from the equation. The large problem facing teachers and parents is that we cannot fix what we cannot see.

Once upon a time, you saw the bullying in action at school – someone got pushed, or someone dropped a handwritten note. Then you could sit the involved parties down and settle the issue. But today the teasing and the shaming and the cruelty happen outside of school time and off of school property.

When educators bring concerns to the attention of school counselors or administrators, roadblocks appear. Administrators warn teachers to step back, tell them they are treading on dangerous ground. Talking about what happens on social media is a potential invasion of privacy. All too often, the answer is that if it did not happen on school property, in essence, it did not happen.

By the time students reach fifth or sixth grade, they are smart enough to keep the evidence out of the classroom – at least for the most part. They figure out ways to hurt one another and take pains to make sure adults don’t see.

But believe me, teachers know it happens. Teachers know that students are harassing one another but they can’t find it, they don’t have access to it, and they can’t prove it. There may be something large and dangerous brewing, but instinct is not enough to spur any tangible action to stop it. Teachers cannot help if they do not know.

The only way to know for certain that there is a problem is if students tell someone. But bullied kids are afraid. They are afraid of the people who are bullying them and they are afraid of getting others in trouble. They are afraid that someone, somehow, will judge or blame them for what is happening. They are afraid that someone will find out that they told someone.

It is our job as parents and educators to help take away that fear.

One of the most important things we can teach our children and teens is that they must speak up when someone harasses them. Tell a teacher. Tell a parent. Give specific details. Get the information to the right people so they can address the issue. If they do not tell someone what is going on, people will end up hurt – or even worse.

Teachers and parents must communicate in clear language with the children in our care. If something is going on, they need to start a conversation. They need to give details – the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Be specific. What did someone say or write? Who said it? Who else was present or shared it? What exactly happened? When and where did it occur? More specific detail means that adults can take more specific action to resolve the problem.

Our children also need to know that they are safe if they speak up. They must trust teachers and other school personnel to protect their safety and anonymity. The last thing a teacher, counselor, or administrator wants to do is make things worse for the victims.

And before any of this, there must be vigilance at home. Parents, talk with your children. Make sure they understand the way social media works. Make sure they understand what is OK and not OK for people to say and do and what defines a bullying or harassment situation. Look at their social media – or, better yet, use it with them. Please don’t say they need their privacy. It is in those private, unsupervised moments that our children are doing these terrible things to one another. If we sit by their side we can teach them to not only make appropriate choices for themselves, but also to recognize a potential problem.

The stark reality is that we cannot track every moment of our children’s lives. That was not possible thirty years ago and it is not possible now. But we can teach them what we believe about right and wrong. We can be present and attentive and teach them how to behave with responsibility and compassion, online or off. We can role-play with them and empower them to be confident enough to speak up when the time comes that they must. We can do all this and then we can hope and pray that they will remember when it matters most.

It may seem simplistic to say so, but it would not take much to begin to change the culture of bullying and harassment that exists today. It only takes one small stone thrown into a pond to create waves at the water’s edge. That is true of cruelty and evil, and it is true of kindness and compassion.


Author Image - Lisa A. ListwaLisa A. Listwa is a wife, mother, and self-employed recovering high school English teacher. She works as a freelance writer, editor, and tutor.
Lisa lives with her husband, her daughter, and three Rotten Cats. She spends her time stacking the pile of books to read ever higher, wondering if she should have been a chef, and trying to figure out where she last left her damn cell phone.
Lisa writes about life and all its fascinations and banalities at her blog, the The Meaning of Me. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

SM links:
The Meaning of Me – http://www.themeaningofme.com
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Meaning-of-Me/1549497105318801
Twitter – https://twitter.com/LisaMeaningofMe

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49 thoughts on “BULLYING: THE PUBLIC SECRET

    • The truth is, Pattie, that while tweens and teens and very young adults are likely the most frequent users, they are the most inexperienced – mainly because they are inexperienced about all things at those ages. We even see adults misuse social media and they “should know better.” So expecting our kids to understand the damage it does is asking an awful lot. We have to teach them. I still contend that they have no real concept of how widespread that damage can be.

      Liked by 1 person

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  2. It is interesting to hear (read) you say that the teachers know it is happening, even though it is happening away from the classroom. I really do not think the students and parents know that…if they did they may be more likely to come forward knowing they already have support.
    Thank you for your insight!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you – students and parents often really don’t know how much teachers are aware of things. Even if a teacher doesn’t know for certain that a particular kid said a particular thing, you hear the whispers, you see the glances, you notice the body language – you may not know all the specific details, but you know there is something amiss. Given that, if kids or parents came forward and said “hey I know XYZ,” then maybe together they could glean more information, be able to share details with admin or counselors and do what we all can to help, before it is too late. All too often we only find out after the damage has been done, after the bullying has been going on for weeks or months or longer.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well, there is that poem…Children Learn What They Live. It’s very true. It’s sad, but think of how often you saw a kid behave a certain way and then when you encounter the parent you think “oh, OK, now it makes sense.” Modeling sounds so buzz-word, but it’s the best word. If we don’t model how to behave – and what to do when there’s trouble – how are our kids supposed to figure it out?

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  3. It’s so scary. My daughter is just beginning to dabble in social media. I recently allowed her to have an Instagram account. She has strict rules about her own privacy settings and who she’s allowed to follow. I often pick up her phone and see what she’s been doing. I absolutely agree that privacy is not important here. Social media is a public forum anyway. I feel like I might have a slight advantage over some parents here because I’m really into social media myself. But, like you say, the most important thing we can do is keep that line of communication open. Our kids need to know it’s okay to tell us, no matter what.

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    • Yup, you’re spot on, Jen – with regard to the privacy question, that you have an edge because you are already savvy yourself, and that it is scary. Really scary. I just said the same thing in response to Byron – don’t talk to me about privacy. It’s in the privacy that the trouble starts. Remember when we were kids and we talked on the phone and we knew at any moment that our parents could pick up another extension and listen? Well, social media needs to be kind of like that, I think. They need to know that we are watching – not so much in the “gotcha” sense, like we’re trying to catch them doing something wrong, but in the sense that we are helping them to be smart and responsible, but also that we’re there to raise an eyebrow and explain what’s not OK when we see it go by. In social media and all things, yes, kids need to know that it’s always OK to tell a trusted adult what’s going on.

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  4. Thank you Lisa, for giving me a whole new set of fears! I’m kidding of course. I really do appreciate this food for thought. It’s important to realize how little a teacher can have to do with the peer abuse a student is suffering. I’m in such an ignorant place with social media, because my oldest is only 6, and the solution in my mind has always been “just don’t ever allow her to have her own social media accounts until she moves out.” But really, that’s crippling now. It’s important for them to learn the how, when, why, and who about what they’re going to encounter online, because it really is the new reality. Sigh. I have a lot of growing to do. And I’m afraid. She does so well in real life though. I bet she’ll do well online as well, as long as I’m present. Thanks again for this post!

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    • OH, Byron, I know, right? Makes you want to lock your kids up forever.
      It pains me a bit when people say that teachers ignore the bullying, etc. I think maybe sometimes that is true and there are many reasons why. But it is very true that they get pretty smart pretty quick and learn to hide it. Sometimes teachers truly have no idea. Other times, we suspect, but can’t prove and that is difficult to take to an administrator or counselor. Some schools have things like Student Assistance Program teams where you can submit a request to have something checked out – you notice a kid’s grades slipping or see a change in behavior, attitude, the way the dress, the kids they hang out with, whatever. And those requests could cover any number of problems kids have from LDs to bullying to drugs, or dozens more.
      Knowing what we do about how social media operates, my Husband and I often toy with the idea of keeping our six year old off of it until she’s 40, but like you said – that isn’t even practical anymore. I tell anyone who will listen that the key is to use it with your kids, show them what’s OK, explain what’s not. Supervise and monitor their use – and please don’t cry to me about their privacy. It’s in the “privacy” where the problems happen. They have to learn how to use it safely and responsibility and that’s one more thing on the list of parenting things to worry about.
      Your statement is key – as long as you are present. Parents, be present for your kids, literally and figuratively, and you’ll be surprised at how well they maneuver their way through life.
      Thanks for reading and your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • A note on people saying teachers ignore the bullying…

        I remember getting expelled from a school for “causing disruptions”. Really what I was doing was fighting back because I was constantly bullied about my crossed eye. Like, the other kids through things at me, stabbed me with hot pens, laughed at me, picked me last for everything, punched me, ganged up on me in groups of 4 or 5, all in front of teachers who did nothing until I started fighting back. Then I was the one who got kicked out of school. This was the pattern through 10 schools. In my eyes, they saw plainly and openly and did nothing. But that was decades ago, and I think a lot of teachers now are less “kids will be kids” about bullying. There’s been more education and more wilful compassion. I’d say a lot of people from my generation are stuck on what we saw growing up, especially if we were the kids who got picked on. So they assume that teachers now are as wilfully ignorant about the bullying as they definitely used to be (in my limited career of school bullying, and singular experience with it – and BTW, a teacher joined into the bullying and physically picked a fight with me once).

        Ex-teachers like you, who can talk about the ACTUAL issues without getting fired, are truly helping us parents get past the unfair prejudice we hold and direct toward teachers that has resulted from their earned reputation while we ourselves were in school. Like everything though, things change. And the world is made of individuals, not defined by stereotypes of professions.

        Truly, may all teachers be as observant and caring as you seem to be. And may the administration finally move out of the way and let them do their jobs!

        All my best,
        Byron

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        • Cheers to that, Byron. Your point is a fair one – we do shape our worldview through our own experiences and it is true that one or two examples of the way not to do something becomes the way we see all. I have always said perception is reality because it’s true. I’m not going to pretend there aren’t teachers who ignore what they see – I’m certain that there are, for whatever reason. Ignorance? Fear? Who knows? And I can tell you this. It could also be true that while it may look like a teacher is ignoring something, ten minutes after the class leaves the room, they may be on the phone or marching down the hall to alert someone. Sometimes you just can’t make a scene in front of the rest of the room. It’s a question of using judgment and making the best overall decision. Sometimes you just have to diffuse and let it go in the moment and take action behind the scenes.
          Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments here. Truly.

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  5. I think protection trumps privacy when you are talking about tweens and teens on social media. I know they don’t see it that way but in my house that’s just the way it is. I have software that tracks my daughter’s texts (even the deleted ones), her Instagram, and her (never used) Facebook account. I speak to her endlessly and I’m not afraid to cite examples (within reason) of what can happen when your guard is let down, even for a moment. For the moment, she listens but who knows what resistance I will face as she gets older. All I know is this, I will never, ever stop. I hear too many stories and it scares the crap out of me. Great post, Lisa!

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    • Sandy, thank you. And if only all parents were as concerned and diligent where these things are concerned! Many are – in no way am I saying that all parents are clueless. But I can tell you that just as many are not paying attention and truly have no idea what their kids are doing (or other kids are doing to their kids) until it’s too late. Either that or they are somehow unaware themselves of the potential dangers. That’s what I hope getting this out there over and over again will change.
      You know, I wonder if we put it in a different perspective how it would look. We teach our preschoolers about bullies and stranger danger and appropriate vs. inappropriate touching, but somehow by the tween and teen years our kids are supposed to suddenly be equipped to handle everything that comes flying at them? No way. They still need to hear about bullies and stranger danger and appropriate vs. inappropriate touching and all the rest – just in different context. I’m with you – I’ve seen one too many Lifetime movies and the real life stuff is even more frightening. Hooray for you for keeping the dialogue and the social media channels open with your daughter!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Social media has changed so many things for our kids. Bullying through it is but one major change. I think the intimacy created by social media makes it easier to bully. High school kids “date” without ever going out on an actual date – they do it all through text. And let their guards down. And open themselves up to being vulnerable to bullying when things go south. I check my daughter’s social media. Often. Every parent should.

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    • Exactly, Dyanne. It’s the same issues but in a very different world than when any of us were kids. You don’t want to be alarmist or hysterical about it, but what you said is exactly it – they let their guard down so easily and that opens the door for so much. A little awareness and preventive wisdom goes a long long way.

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  7. Oh you make such great points here Lisa. Bullying is lurking in all the places that people seem to have no ‘responsibility’ to protect and prevent it from happening. It’s an awful reality. There are so many legalities for teachers that they can barely do much at all, to intervene. And I believe it is up to the parents to constantly monitor their kid’s behavior and actions EVERYWHERE they go- social media included.

    Kids are smarter these days- they know how to dodge the right people and authorities and keep their bullying in secret. And much to my dismay, there are lots of secret places. Sigh…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Chris. Sometimes there are legalities involved, yes. I would agree that happens. And this may ruffle some feathers here, but I have to say that it is unfortunate when something does happen and a parent goes after the teachers saying it’s their fault, why didn’t they stop it, etc. My question is always but where were you? Why did it escape your notice, too? Everyone has to be aware and vigilant. And I did just reply to Byron’s comment with a similar thought to what I’ll say here. Sometimes it may look like a teacher is not doing anything, but you do not know what happens when the class leaves the room. You don’t know what they do behind the scenes to make someone aware of a problem, to bring a situation to the attention of administrators or counselors or a parent. It’s not always the best course of action to “make a scene” with 20 or 30 kids present.
      You are so right – kids are smart and clever and they know how to hide things. That’s why it’s so important that we get involved and let them know we see – and to make sure that we do. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that I can and will know everything that goes on. But I want her to know it’s not about catching her doing wrong, it’s about showing her how to do right and helping her learn to discern when she sees something from someone else that isn’t OK.
      Thanks for coming over!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Your posts on Bullying are so important. Though I have not read the comments and risk restating. Victims need to know they are not alone and bullies need to find the source of their aggression. Thanks for posting.

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  9. Henrywest, if you’re restating those points, you go right ahead! Discussions about bullying and cruelty are important and maybe if we keep saying these things over and over, kids will hear us and know we are listening to them. They are not alone. They need to speak up if there is ever an inkling of a problem. Bullies rarely act with no motivation – there is always a source that causes the aggressive behavior. Speaking out not only protects a victim, but just may save the bully from tragedy down the road. Thanks for your comment!

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  10. Such a really good point about the vigilance and education that begins at home. The school would prefer not to be involved and things that don’t directly happen at school they prefer to not address. We can’t let our own children be reared by social media. It’s tough and it needs to begin before middle school, I think. Thanks for writing this important perspective.

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  11. everything you described in this article concerning teenagers is true of our world today. throughout all of big business and governments everywhere the same kinds of sneaky things are happening.

    The slow spread of narcissism is throwing its net over all of humanity.it is the slow moving Ebola virus of mankind. We do not see it happening . Therefore we cannot develop A antivirus for it. The bullying you speak of will be carried forward into our future societies, as if we need even more of that. Whoh be it to all of us – for what awaits us.

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    • Sorry to be so slow to reply, Chuck. Thanks for your thoughts. You are so right that these things move from the classroom to meeting rooms and more. It’s frightening, isn’t it? My hope is that by talking about it and educating our children and being wary of our own behaviors, we can make positive strides toward a brighter future!

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