Grabbing a Bully by the Horns

September 27, 2011
Dr. Kathleen Briseno
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Who is a bully? A bully is someone who doesn't care about gender, race, age, culture, ability, disability, where you live, the language you speak, ethnicity, religious affiliation, class, or socio-economic status. However, a bully does care about finding new ways to torment his or her targeted victim.

Who is a bully? A bully is someone who charges at his or her victim with insurmountable force that can adversely impact academic performance. Whether the force is name-calling, ridicule, social isolation, pushing, verbal threats, taunting, or stealing lunches—a bully disrupts the learning environment.

Your charge as a teacher is to provide a safe learning environment for all students to benefit from. Having a bully in your classroom interferes with that goal. Therefore, taking steps to improve the environment is critical. One crucial and essential important step is to first understand that bullying is nothing new. Since building academic success in children is not only dependent on effective instruction, but also on students' social-emotional state, you need to take bullying seriously.

Whoever said, "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you," has never felt the force of a bully's words. No, names can't break your bones but they can break your spirit, your drive, your motivation, your self-worth, your performance, and even your will to live. And as a teacher witnessing the effects of bullying—it will break your heart.

Bullying is a serious problem facing our schools. It is a form of harassment that can be emotional, physical, and social. It can happen on the school bus, in the classroom, in the lunchroom, in the halls, in the locker room, on the playground, and more recently, on the Internet and cell phone.

Teachers, it is time to put on your matador outfit, grab your red cape and fight the bullying. Albeit many school districts have formal programs to address bullying, you must be an active participant as the leader of your classroom. Formal programs do not work in isolation—fighting bullying is not about teaching social skills once a week for 30 minutes.

It is not about having the bully serve a detention or talking to the school counselor. Fighting bullying is about you, the teacher, continually modeling and teaching tolerance, respect, character building, good citizenship, self-control, and self-worth. It is about building a community, a community of learners and a community of respectful, caring individuals.

Fighting bullying is about what you, as the classroom teacher, bring to your school community. Are you able to be proactive? Do you know warning signs so you can catch this behavior early? Do you have the ability to think on your feet and redirect students to more acceptable behaviors?

What are your next steps? You need to understand the culture of bullying. There is a reason why someone is a bully.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is going on in that student's life that he or she must turn to bullying?
  • What does the bully have to gain?
  • What does the bully have to lose?

Next, ask yourself these questions about the victim:

  • What is it about this child that makes him or her a target for bullying?
  • What can this child do differently?
  • What can this child do to protect him or herself?

And don't forget to ask these questions about yourself:

  • Can I change how I treat the bully?
  • Can I change how I treat the victim?

Don't avoid the questions—most importantly—don't avoid the answers.

Reflecting back on my first year of teaching in 1974, I was a seventh grade special education teacher for children labeled as socially maladjusted/emotionally disturbed. The community was predominately Caucasian and I was very green. And I would make no excuses for the SM/ED label. My students tormented one female student daily. They made up a song entitled, "Hairy Legs, Daisy." To this day, that tune, those words race through my head. Daisy was a beautiful Hispanic young lady. Yes, she did have hairy legs, but I couldn't change the fact that her parents believed she was too young to shave or that it was a cultural issue. Each day I watched as Daisy withdrew; her work and grades began to mirror how she felt about herself—a true manifestation of the impact of bullying. Totally disgusted, I had to think of something. Surely I could implement some strategy.

What I thought of was unfounded in theory. Without explanation I announced that we would each come up with a nickname; a name we would choose for ourselves and a name only to be used in this classroom. Everyone agreed! My students and I proudly chose our nicknames. Daisy chose the nickname, "Hairy Legs." Profound? Well, it wasn't long before no one used these "acceptable" nicknames and no one ever referred to Daisy as "Hairy Legs" again. You see, what fun would it be to bully Daisy if it didn't bother her?

One final thought, I do not have the magic bullet to make bullying go away altogether. I cannot even give you the one trick that will make one huge difference. Fighting bullying takes the efforts of lots of people for a lot of time.

Remember, your job as a matador is to fight the bullying—may your journey hit the bull's eye!

Tips for Teachers:

  • Collaborate with staff, parents and community members.
  • Have positive behavioral supports in place.
  • Have class meetings.
  • Build trust with students.
  • Make sure your behavior toward a student does not make other students feel that a student deserves to be bullied—in other words, are you accepting of all your students?
  • Get the bully on your side.
  • Understand that teaching social skills is not just a scripted isolated program.
  • Have class rules.
  • Read books to your students that address the bullying theme.
  • Have students role play bullying situations.
  • Teach conflict resolution.
  • Attend workshops/conferences on bullying.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Inform students that bullying can become a police issue.
  • Be a positive role model.

Things to do if you haven't already:

  • View the Disney movie, Bridge to Terabithia. This film is based on the Newbery Medal Award-winning novel of the same title by Katherine Paterson. The movie beautifully addresses bullying. It is a must see!
  • Read children's books on bullying to your students.
  • View Don't Laugh at Me, and if you do not have a bullying curriculum in place, consider this project from Operation Respect, under the direction of Peter Yarrow, as an excellent starting point to a "Ridicule Free Zone" within your classroom. You and your students will fall in love with the song. Materials are free!

Children's Literature on Bullying/Teaching Tools:

  • Arthur's April Fool by Marc Brown
  • The Berenstain Bears and the Bully and The Berenstain Bears and
  • Too Much Teasing by Stan and Jan Berenstain
  • Jake Drake, Bully Buster by Andrew Clements
  • Chester's Way and A Weekend with Wendell by Kevin Henkes
  • Mean, Mean Maureen Green by Judy Cox
  • Pinky and Rex and the Bully by James Howe
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • The Meanest Thing to Say by Bill Cosby
  • The Bully by Rita Towes
  • Bullies Are a Pain in the Brain by Trevor Romain
  • Goggles! by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner and Peggy Rathman
  • The New Dog by Barbara Shook Hazen
  • Stepping on the Cracks by Carol Hurst
  • Oliver Button Is a Sissy by Tomie de Paola
  • Bad Girls by Cynthia Voight
  • Attack of the Killer Fishsticks by Paul Zindel
  • The Night the Bells Rang by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock

Don't Laugh at Me, Teachers' Guide, Program Video, School Songs CD
Operation Respect, Inc. and Educators for Social Responsibility,

Giannetti, C. & Sagarese, M. (2001). Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle. New York: Broadway Books.

Zins, Joseph E., Weissberg, R., Wang, M., and Walberg, H. (2004).
Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning:
What Does the Research Say? New York: Teachers College Press.

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