Taking the “Bull” out of Bullying

Lee Culpepper

Two years ago during a teachers’ staff meeting, the speaker caught my attention revealing that bullying causes over 150,000 student absences every day. She also reported the obvious as if it were profound — most kids eventually experience some form of bulling. When she stated bullying had become an epidemic in America, I started sensing the force behind this seminar.

Finally, the speaker described an incident that she witnessed at another school. Apparently, a teacher had been reprimanding a student in the hallway. She said this teacher had hovered too closely to the student while pointing his finger at the student’s chest. She accused the teacher of bullying – describing the actions as intimidating. Having no clue what this student had done, she claimed such reprimands are unacceptable.

Today, it takes guts to disregard political correctness. Teachers and administrators who dare to discipline firmly can face hysteria from hopeless supervisors, touchy-feely colleagues, permissive parents, and melodramatic headlines. The criticism seems more about appearing compassionate and understanding than actually confronting and correcting a child’s issues. Advocating friendship skills and nurturing skills makes such critics feel sophisticated, but pampering words alone don’t solve low self-esteem or behavior problems – two traits that some bullies and their victims often share. Even teenagers resent obvious con-jobs meant to manipulate better behavior. However, teaching self-discipline and how to overcome challenges does help.

At school, teachers should set the example of self-discipline and respect. Additionally, students should know teachers are looking out for them. Personally, I preferred being the encouraging teacher, but I had the responsibility to be tough when students misbehaved or disrespected themselves by disrespecting others. Teachers have the duty to motivate each student. Tough love isn’t always the best solution, but bad behavior needs tough consequences. Furthermore, setting boundaries clearly helps students develop. Knowing what is expected of them and accomplishing their responsibilities within those parameters gives students what they need – a degree of independence and accountability.

Moreover, students who lack discipline and boundaries at home need teachers willing to remedy such problems. When students entered my classroom, they became my responsibility. If they presented problems at school, I presumed they presented problems at home. Consequently, I confronted the problems. About the only time I contacted parents or administrators was when they initiated the communication. I took responsibility for my actions and my students’ actions.

The year before the bullying seminar, I had an overweight student named Chris. He was clearly self-conscious about his size. Chris’s friends had often picked on him. In my English class, students who got in trouble had an option: push-ups or detentions. With no authority to enforce push-ups, I offered the choice. Doing push-ups in front of peers helped humble students, but after initial embarrassment, my students developed a push-up passion. Exercising our minds and our bodies added zest to class.

The first time Chris got in trouble, he didn’t want a detention, but he doubted his physical condition. I told him we all start somewhere, so he attempted the push-ups. As he struggled completing just ten push-ups, his friends started laughing. I said, “You guys think that’s funny? Then you can join him — or take detentions.” After their whining added five push-ups to my offer, they labored to complete twenty-five.

My push-up policy appalled some teachers despite its effectiveness. Chris could eventually do forty push-ups; his friends went from heckling him to encouraging him; and he was proud of himself. I think he occasionally got in trouble just to get in shape. He thanked me before summer for helping him with push-ups and for helping with his friends.

While I didn’t mind students ribbing one another in good fun, I tried to teach them that we should be able to laugh at ourselves; I often made fun of my own dumb mistakes or of my own personal limitations. What I didn’t tolerate was mean-spirited taunting or picking on someone for being socially awkward. I tried fostering a team mentality in class. I wanted students to know they were all part of a high-achieving English class. I made class challenging, and students knew they had accomplished something when they passed it.

On the other hand, some teachers grow numb to student apathy or their own indifference. Some also fall victim to political correctness and teacher-credentialing nonsense. For instance, a high school classmate of the Virginia Tech murderer reported that students laughed at the boy’s low, mumbling voice during presentations. The classmate also said their teacher did nothing in response. Was the teacher following guidance from a mandatory presentation like the one I attended? Did the teacher have a problem with the troubled student’s behavior and think his voice was funny, too? Regardless, such laughter would have resulted in my “hovering way too closely while pointing my finger at some teenagers’ chests.” I also might have had some stern words with the now infamous murderer if he had turned in some of the garbage that’s been reported since his murder-suicide.

Nevertheless, I’ve had students whose weird behaviors made me wonder what they’re capable of doing. These awkward teens can be both bullies and victims. Often just showing a sincere interest in them and looking out for them helps, but sometimes their behavior requires tougher approaches. I banned the popular victim mentality, but I also banned arrogance.

Ultimately, every student needs a balance of positive reinforcement and corrective discipline. As lunatics scramble to identify a new epidemic, our presentation revealed a dark irony. Most of us realize life doesn’t always treat us kindly, so we had better be prepared to pick ourselves up on our own. If teenagers can’t handle a harsh scolding at school, how can they handle the harsh realities of life? Maybe the speaker’s “bullying teacher” actually illustrates the reality check that many teenagers need.
Lee Culpepper is currently writing his first book, Alone and Unafraid: One Marine’s Counterattack Inside the Walls of Public Education. Additionally, he is a contributing columnist for The Publius’ Forum, The North Carolina Conservative, and The Hinzsight Report.

A 1991 graduate of Virginia Tech, Culpepper majored in both English and Communication. He was also a varsity wrestler. He attended the United States Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, and received his commission in 1993. He served four years on active duty before settling in southern California to begin his teaching career. He taught high school English in both California and Texas. He recently moved to eastern North Carolina with his wife, Heather, and their bulldog, Shrek.

Lee can be reached at drcoolpepper@yahoo.com.

Visit Lee’s blog at http://wlculpepper.townhall.com/

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