Are teachers perpetuating the curse of the playground bully?

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When my stepdaughter was fourteen she got into vlogging. She was good at it too. She was engaging in front of the camera, showed a passion for script writing and a flare for editing. She seemed to enjoy the whole creative process. We were incredibly proud of what she was producing, as was she. The vlogs covered issues ranging from growing up as a mixed-race teenage girl, to having same sex parents, to feminism and a nigling worry of growing old alone as a crazy cat lady, among many others. The positive comments made her feel as though her efforts were worthwhile. Feedback suggested that she used humour and satire to address topics that were pertinent to young people. There were things she needed to work on but she knew this and regularly asked followers (and family) for suggestions for improvement. Criticisms were constructive and her work improved. We got over our initial embarrassment at being the butt of a number of her posts and were happy that she was using her time online for something other than Facebook. Her site was gaining hits, she was happy.

Then came the trolling…

A few students from her classes whom she didn’t particularly get on with during the school day got wind of her chosen pastime and decided to participate in the critique of her work. The trouble is, they weren’t interested in her vlogs, they were merely intent on the assassination of her character. The fact that she had given herself (and them) an online stage meant that she was fair game. They used all the usual excuses, they were just trying to establish the facts, if you put your opinions out there then expect to have them challenged, it’s all in the pursuit of the truth, if you can’t take the criticism then don’t post opinions. The list went on and on, becoming more and more personal as time progressed. Amid cruel comments about her physical appearance, her self-righteous attitude and her raving feminist approach, our fourteen year old became very depressed and gave up a hobby that she had thoroughly enjoyed, one which was giving others like her some comfort in their own similar situations. As parents, we took an objective but supportive approach to her predicament. We asked her to consider what she could learn from the experience and encouraged her to be reflective, resilient and to keep on vlogging. She is resilient and reflective but she refused to give way. It was the end of her internet social commentaries, the experience dealt a huge blow to her self-confidence and personal well-being, one which meant she wouldn’t voice her opinions outside of her comfort zone for the foreseeable future. What a shame that she had so much to contribute but was silenced by a continual and unrelenting barrage of abuse disguised as critique.

As a teacher I see children experience this same kind of attitude every day, whether it be in person or as a result of online communication. Generally, the people who do the trolling or bullying describe themselves as telling it like it is or saying what everyone else is thinking or just being honest. This is how they justify cruel behaviours that leave even the most resilient young people feeling broken, alone and alienated. We challenge the behaviours in school, we sanction the perpetrators in a hope that they will learn from their actions and reassure the victims that it is not their fault. We explain the importance of ignoring intimidating behaviour, of not giving in to bullies, of staying strong, of rising above it. We’ve seen the devastation that callous actions can cause and as advocates for young people we do our best to act as protectors and model the behaviours that we want them to adopt…

But do we?

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are educationalists, people who are passionate about teaching, people who care about children. They inspire me to want to be a better teacher. What I do find saddening is the bickering, back-biting and in some cases out-and-out bullying that seems to be rife in the Twittersphere at the moment. Surely this is not the behaviour we would allow to be commonplace in our own schools? Surely as parents we would be horrified if our children were the victims of such cruel words? Surely we would discourage young people from using social media if they were receiving a stream of personal attacks? Surely we would be mortified if any child we were responsible for was participating in such cruel behaviours? And yet, it’s there, among us. Daily. Different victims but generally the same voices. Their defense, to use self-deprecation in order to gain some kind of justification for their scathing attacks I disagree so I’m therefore now using ad hominem?! Is it wrong that I’m just trying to establish the truth?! They trawl their timelines for examples of when they have been badly done to (generally out of the context of an ongoing disagreement). Failing that, there’s always the what qualifies your opinion interjection, the where’s your research to support that discreditation or my particular favourite, my degree’s bigger than your degree card. Are these people actually reading what they are writing or thinking about how they are making the person on the receiving end of their tweets feel? Do they care? They wear the badge of being purveyors of the truth when clearly they are assassins of personality. Certain members of the online community only need log on and tweet about the most innocuous of topics and attract scathing abuse with little or no reason. And yes this happens in some groups of people in the real-world, yes this is a sad fact of life and we need to learn to deal with it but it doesn’t mean it’s right and it’s certainly not ok to let it go unchallenged.

Also, it’s important to look at why you use social media and the internet. It’s a great place to share ideas, offer new perspectives and challenge the way people think by listening and adding to. However, if night after night you’re getting into the same arguments with different people and using the same excuses as to why this is the case then the problem is maybe your approach? Perhaps you may be better suited in a combat class at the local gym because holding on to all that anger is no good for anyone – go let it out. Treat yourself, you’ll feel better!

We are all guilty of gossip at times but we do need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and think about what we are communicating to others. Would we accept it in our professional capacity? Would we be happy for our children to be on the receiving end of such behaviour? Would it be acceptable in the staffroom? Let’s not perpetuate the curse of the schoolyard bully. Let’s rise above it. Perhaps it is time to think about what we want to achieve? Perhaps it’s time to delete that response or comment before it’s shared? Perhaps it is time to model the behaviour we would want to see? Perhaps it is time to take a view through different eyes.

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18 thoughts on “Are teachers perpetuating the curse of the playground bully?

  1. Really interesting article. Whilst I have not been the subject of online trolling I have witnessed it in my Twitter stream. There Is a difference between tweeters being passionate about their field and being difficult for the sake of it. Of course we won’t always agree but that not a bad thing as long as we treat each other with respect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jillberry102

      Just think one person’s ‘precious’ is another person’s ‘sensitive’, and I will always maintain sensitivity is a strength, David – though I agree we need to build our resilience too. I think teachers and leaders have to “rise above” a lot. The key is knowing what to rise above and what to tackle.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Christopher

    I am certain some dominant characters prevent sharing of ideas and healthy discussion. Just mention anything about “Learning Styles” for example and see the hounds let loose. There are characters in the staffroom who are intimidating in their views and judgements and twitter should be a place where people should be free to share, engage in dialogue and ask for help. Too many big egos, too many sheep following them. It is like the most toxic of staffroom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be at times but I also feel that Twitter has been illuminating for me. I have learned so much since joining and have been inspired by some truly remarkable people who I have so much to thank for. I think it’s important to step back and learn from poor behaviour. Just like a toxic pool in some staffrooms, teachers need to avoid negativity at all costs. X

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    2. jillberry102

      You see – that’s not my experience at all. I think Twitter is like the most positive of staffrooms. It may be that I just don’t follow people I find ‘toxic’ and those I do follow don’t RT negative/aggressive comments.

      Though, actually, I wonder if we maybe use the word “toxic” too readily. Just for info, I wrote this for @staffrm about dealing with staff we find challenging (and before anyone else says it I know some people will find this patronising!) http://staffrm.io/@jillberry/1vFeoGY0mK

      I do think we have to listen to people who challenge us (I learnt more from those who challenged me than those who agreed with me) but I don’t think criticism has to be acerbic/biting.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I like your reply Jill. You’re right. I don’t follow toxic people on Twitter but actively choose to follow people who will challenge my personal viewpoint because it’s by listening to them that we learn to juggle a number of opinions in our heads and form a balanced view.

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  3. “They used all the usual excuses, they were just trying to establish the facts, if you put your opinions out there then expect to have them challenged, it’s all in the pursuit of the truth, if you can’t take the criticism then don’t post opinions.”

    These all sound like terrible excuses if placed next to accusations of bullying, trolling or personal attacks, particularly aimed at a child, But in debate, a call for people *not* to establish facts, *not* to challenge opinions or *not* to criticise ideas is actually a call to silence all disagreement. Perhaps, instead of lecturing the internet on what people shouldn’t do, you should make it clear what people *should* do if they do consider something on the internet to be wrong. And if it’s “check to see whether disagreeing with me would hurt my feelings” then I am quite happy to say to you “don’t post opinions” on public forums as opinions expressed in public will always be challenged in public. You need to distinguish between disagreement and personal attacks, and your post above doesn’t. In fact, it seems to consider disagreement to be an excuse for personal attacks and hurt feelings to be reason enough for having one’s own opinions treated as infallible truths to be nodded through and never challenged.

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    1. jillberry102

      Sorry to but in (I know this isn’t my post!) but just want to say it isn’t disagreement that people object to (I don’t think) it’s how it’s framed/phrased and the dominant tone. For example, I don’t think there’s anything to object to in the tone of Andrew’s comment here. Just my opinion!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But tone is overwhelmingly subjective. Most objections to tone are simply statements of how one feels about being disagreed with. Any disagreement that runs short of being obsequious will be criticised for its tone. Particularly if the content is hard to answer.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. jillberry102

        Just thinking of the one occasion when I got into an exchange where the tweeter I was in conversation with said my comments were “bollocks” and “bullshit”. It honestly wasn’t the content of his/her arguments I felt uncomfortable with!

        But have to say that this has happened to me very rarely, considering how much time I spend n Twitter!

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