Myth 3: Bullying is a problem for youth that everyone outgrows (Part 3 of 3)
By Kathleen Keelan
“What if the bully is in this room?” was a statement I remember from an adult participant in one of my workshops years ago.
This courageous teacher was not going to sit by while I went through my normal spiel of defining the bullying dynamic. There are bullies. There are victims. There are bystanders. There are “up standers”—the new term that describes kids who stand up for kids who are being mistreated. This was an adult who was not going to let the workshop proceed as usual without making her stand.
Looking back, I realize what this brave person must have been going through to do what she did. She was describing a coworker who had, in her eyes, been bullying her for years. I don’t know the specifics, but I believe the whole staff was aware of the conflict. The adults in the room were perfectly comfortable when we were discussing how kids treat each other and how they need to “take a stand” against bullying. But the tension in the room became palpable when this courageous staff member spoke up.
She had been experiencing a power imbalance for years at this school. She had been ostracized by the one staff member, and then eventually many of them joined in. The leadership was aware of it and did not come to her defense—not because they did not care, but because I think they were not sure how to intervene. Once she heard there was an in-service on bullying prevention, she set in her mind that it would not be all about the students at that school. The issue had gone on too long, and she did not know how to stop it. It was devastating personally, and it was destroying the joy she felt in her chosen profession. Finally, at 3:00 in the afternoon, she mustered the courage to blurt out the words that I believe she had been holding back for a long time:
“What if the bully is on the staff?”
There is a layer of distance when adults talk about the kids and how they treat one another. However, when we begin to examine the very human condition of how people treat one another, the situation becomes a different story.
It is not unusual for someone to approach me at the end of a workshop or during a break to explain to me that the real bullying is between some of the adults on the staff or in the community. Normally, these conversations take place to the side of the podium in whispers, with a lot of glancing over the shoulder to see who is listening. It is rare for the issue to be brought out in a public forum.
After she said the first statement, there was some understandable shifting in the chairs and nervous chuckling. The courageous teacher went on to say:
“What if the bully is in this room?”
At this point, there was not a single participant willing to avert their gaze from mine. Nobody would look to the left or the right because somehow this would be admitting to being or pointing to the culprit. This staring contest went on for what seemed like hours.
The bullying dynamic is so complex when you look at it from the group level. Some call this form of bullying relational aggression or a type of aggression that causes harm through damaging relationships. Adult groups, just like groups of children, must find an even ground on which to function. Simple concepts like relating to one another with predictability are a must. Allowing people to think individually and to express views openly are signs that a group is treating its members with human dignity. However, sometimes there is bullying, or even extreme bullying, among adults in a group setting.
In a perfect world, when people do not give the power to the bully on the playground or on the staff, the bullying stops. When a group has an awareness of what is happening, then the group should refrain from giving the power to the bully. I believe that within this staff most of the teachers did not want to mistreat the courageous teacher. But, just like children, they went along with the person they perceived to be the person with the power. This winner-take-all mentality contributes to conflict and injustice. The same fears that immobilize children immobilize adults: fear of losing social collateral; fear that they will be the next target; fear of retaliation.
People have the same hope that we have had throughout the ages. Whether it is group bullying or individual bullying, we have power in numbers. I am thankful to have had that experience that day. Without passing judgment on the teachers, I realized that I needed to see beyond the actual statements. I reminded them that, unless one teacher has the courage to stand up against the staff member and support the courageous teacher, the abuse that is happening will continue.
The elephant in the room was exposed. I encouraged the group to stop staring at me and start looking at each other.
Kathleen Keelan has dedicated her career to preventing bullying by working as a teacher, therapist, presenter, and expert witness in bullying cases. She has been conducting bullying prevention workshops in schools since the late ’90s and also conducts classes and webinars throughout the United States.