As teachers, we know that National Bullying Prevention Month is every October. Our challenge is needing to combat bullying throughout the entire year—not only in the halls or playgrounds, but even when analyzing the Danielson rubric after an observation. Is the classroom environment “highly effective”? Are students comfortable providing one another positive feedback? While it is important to recognize and celebrate in October, the ideas represented in Bullying Prevention Month need to be embedded into the curriculum and culture of the classroom throughout the school year.
A few years into my career, I decided to share a bit of my bullying story with my students in order to make the realities of bullying more tangible and relatable. When I first started teaching, I never even considered sharing my story; for me, it was an embarrassing secret I didn’t want anyone to know about, least of all my students. I had this idea that it would ruin my career and taint my students’ views of me. I grew up in a time when bullying was brushed aside and not discussed; it was something to be ashamed of, or at least that’s how I felt. I was 15 when it started, but well into my mid-20s, I was still letting this experience dictate my life.
I started to feel like a fraud when I taught the mandated anti-bullying lessons at my school. Students would be brave enough to share their former experiences with the class, and I, as their role model, was denying mine existed. For me, facing the reality of what I experienced and sharing this story with my students were simultaneous. For a while, I was stuck being two people and living two different lives. I thought that acting like my experience never happened would erase the fact that it did; if no one knew, then maybe I could pass for being “normal.” But truthfully, denying your identity makes it harder to be yourself, and throwing away the wisdom you learned from undergoing a difficult experience does a disservice to those around you. We have been put on this earth for a reason, and I wasn’t being the best teacher I could be if I didn’t share all that I had to offer. We are always telling our students to value what makes them unique—this was my eccentricity and I finally decided to embrace it.
In high school, I endured a brutal “mean girl” experience that lasted about three years. It was a situation where a few girls spread false rumors, and everyone around me acted as bystanders and followed suit. It was completely uncharted territory for me to go from being part of a large group of girlfriends to eating lunch alone. My teachers were the only light inside of the darkness that consumed my teen years. I had a few teachers who took special interests in me and helped to rebuild my waning confidence. One teacher in particular, Mrs. Lewis, gave me opportunities to channel my pain and frustration into creative arts like writing and theater, and validated my importance and self-worth. She always had something funny to say and would give out advice even if I didn’t ask for it; while I never fully expressed to her what was going on, she saw that I was in need of support and took on the responsibility of looking out for me.
It was not until the end of my senior year of high school that I decided I wanted to be an English teacher; I wanted to give back to the world the kindness I had received from my teachers. When I was in college, Mrs. Lewis passed away. She was the perfect mix of strong and sensitive, honest and understanding, and a life preserver in the rocky seas that were my high school experience. This loss made it more important than ever to live out her legacy.
As I got older, I realized that if I wanted to honor Mrs. Lewis, I needed to be confidently and unapologetically myself. During my fourth year teaching, I decided to tell my students a fragment of my experience; they learned I was bullied and that I had trouble making friends because of it. I was floored by the supportive reactions and inquisitive responses I receivedand surprised by the candor students had in speaking about their own experiences. I discovered that sharing my experience helped them feel more comfortable in sharing with me in general. They appreciated the honesty, which aided in building a supportive classroom environment.
Today my classroom is filled with reminders to be kind to one another. Our group work rules involve building each other up. We create a chain of nice to hang in the room, and students are taught to have respectful discussions. My teaching incorporates social-emotional and culturally responsive tasks and texts. We do an entire unit on bullying, reading a story from both the victim’s and the bully’s perspective. Class discussions revolve around the larger ideas of being insightful, thoughtful, and respectful of others' opinions, and being sensitive to those in need. My colleagues and I model friendly interactions, and my bullying experience is a reality I have accepted and continue to learn from.
The positive about enduring a trauma like bullying is that there is so much that can be learned from your experience and used to help others. This doesn’t necessarily mean always sharing the details of your experience, but perhaps socializing with others differently. You cultivate problem-solving skills, empathy, and self-awareness in a way that is unparalleled to those who have never been in your shoes. Every year, I think of what else I want my students to learn from my story. I constantly challenge myself to find other ways to connect with them by reflecting on the strong relationships I had with my teachers. Sharing my bullying story has allowed me to be a different kind of teacher, one that makes her past pain productive by passing on her insights to the future generation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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