Americans have been talking about bullying and its negative consequences in recent years more than ever before, but the popular discourse on bullying reflects a number of incorrect assumptions about who bullies are and whom they target. Bullies are understood to be poorly socialized individuals who exhibit individual pathology and aggressive behaviors toward more vulnerable others. While this may in fact be true of some highly visible bullies, bullying behaviors are not just individual acts. Bullying is targeted at those who are perceived to be "different" in some way, and the cultural value system facilitating bullying makes targeting some differences "acceptable" and targeting other differences unthinkable. For example, students who are not gender conforming are often targets of verbal and physical bullying (and more severe violence) because creative gender expression is not a difference that has cultural value. Bullying is a social policing system cruelly marking out who is considered acceptable, and who is not; who is important, who is not, and reiterating what characteristics and identities have cultural value in that context (Payne & Smith, 2016).
In order to better understand the increases in school violence reported over the past year, we must take a broader view and not focus just on the individual bully. In the three days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 201 incidents of harassment linked to the presidential election rhetoric of hate and intimidation, many of them school incidents of bullying. This trend of more open targeting and harassment in school was initially reported in the spring of 2016 and termed the "Trump Effect." The Trump Effect represents a belief that openly ridiculing others for disability; threatening them for their race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or family structure; demeaning women; and grabbing girls' bodies is now acceptable behavior because the candidate of the Republican party, now President-elect, publicaly engaged in -- and made excuses for -- such behavior.
The attitudes underlying these assaults on the dignity of others are not new -- just made more visible. It is imperative that we recognize how aggression functions in processes of social positioning and how patterns of youth aggression are reflective of cultural norms for sexuality and gender expression, as well as for race, language, religion, and ability. Bullying is a tool for preservation of the status quo, the privileging of heterosexuality, masculinity, and adherence to the gender binary. And, depending on context, it may also serve as a tool for the privileging of one race over another, one religion over another, etc. It "reflects, reproduces, and prepares young people to accept inequalities embedded in larger social structures" (Pascoe 2013, 95). Shifting our understanding of "the problem" in this way demands a different response to peer-to-peer aggression than the usual bullying intervention strategies of punishing the bully and supporting the victim (Payne & Smith).
In the wake of the US presidential election, the rise in overt harassment and bullying in K-12 public schools has revealed both how thin the veil of civility and also some of the basic issues with the ways our schools have responded to the problem of bullying. Though important, it is insufficient to encourage students to just " be nice" to one another. Likewise, punishing or remediating an individual bully does not address the power dynamics and the cultural value system that leads some groups of students to be repeated targets. In this era, we need more than traditional anti-bullying approaches (Payne & Smith, 2016).
Not surprisingly, teachers have reported feeling frustrated by the lack of resources available to them to respond to these increasing identity based assaults. Most teachers did not receive anti-bias or multicultural education training during their university coursework, which means too many educators have limited knowledge about issues of stigma and oppression. Practicing teachers have few opportunities to participate in professional development on the marginalization experienced by non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender people. Additionally, implementation of many state anti-bullying laws has focused on issues of reporting and punishment but not provided educational resources that would help educators feel confident in addressing bullying and harassment rooted in gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, language, and other differences. Many teachers want to respond to these attacks on diversity beyond reporting individual students for their bullying behaviors.
We at the Queering Education Research Institute (QuERI]) have been considering how we might support educators who want to teach anti-bias curriculum, prevent peer-to-peer aggression, and promote inclusive school culture. We wanted our response to reflect our commitment to shifting public discourse about bullying and challenging the assumption that bullying is anti-social behavior. In order to put these ideas into practice, QuERI is launching a Teacher Teach Back Team.
"Teaching Back" is responding to identity-based violence and harassment through curriculum, pedagogy, and policy that value differences and promote justice. It requires that educators be vigilant in their attention to social dynamics in a classroom, school, and community that contribute to stigma and exclusion then respond quickly through creating learning opportunities that promote equity and justice. Rather than respond to various forms of aggression through disciplinary procedures (which may also be necessary), Teaching Back focuses on creating educational opportunities to learn about others often excluded from curriculum, challenging students to consider their bullying behaviors and why they judge others as acceptable targets, and paying renewed attention to privileged and marginalized voices in the classroom. Additionally, Teaching Back means shaping instruction time so that it not only meets the requirements of the curriculum, but also challenges students to think critically, to expand their awareness of others, and to reflect on their biases. It may also involve supporting targeted students through extra curricular responses, advocating for their greater access to services, or helping targeted students communicate their experiences to administration. This recent bad behavior termed the "Trump effect" has deeper roots than this painful election cycle, roots in cultural prejudice and discrimination. Teaching Back has a greater chance of positively influencing school culture than strategies focused only on bullying intervention and incident reporting.
The Teacher Teach Back Team is a group of experienced K-12 educators from around the country who have volunteered to share their skills and knowledge with other teachers who want to take up this work. QuERI work focuses on gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues but the team will address all types of in-school bullying and harassment through the teach back framework. This is not a funded project. We aim to launch the team relatively quickly and begin supporting teachers facing these issues in their schools, so getting the word out to other teachers that we are available as a resource will largely depend on social media and teacher-to-teacher networking.
Educators are invited to send questions about strategies for teaching equity-focused curriculum, resources, and specific situations that arise in the classroom or school. Our team can offer our resources and experience as well as collegial support, and will post selected questions and responses here on Huffington Post. We also invite educators' stories about experiences of successful "teaching back," and we will publish a sample of those as well. This is an act of recognition and of solidarity: We wanted to DO something in the face of hateful rhetoric, and we wanted our actions to support teachers and support real change, even a small one. Educators, send questions for us as well as stories of your teaching back successes to firstname.lastname@example.org. The more detail you can give us about the situation/incident calling you to teach back, the better we can respond.
Bullying is not anti-social behavior, but rather is both intensely social and functional behavior rooted in the school and larger cultural value systems. It is "a reflection of broader social inequity and prejudice... and routinely "marginalize[s]" and "villifie[s] those who are seen as 'different'" (Walton 2011,140). We believe that teaching back can make a difference -- not solve the problem, but make a meaningful contribution to addressing stigma, bias, violence, and exclusion. Please share this post with K-12 educators. For more info on QuERI: www.queeringeducation.org.