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Standing Up for Bullied Students

bullying must goBullying is a problem many of our students face even as the best teachers struggle to eliminate it and create a more positive atmosphere where students feel safe and free to focus on learning.

In the March 2013 Voices from the Middle, former middle school teacher Margaret Berg argues that bullying is even worse for students who are queer (“shorthand for the lengthy phrase ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender’”). For example, she says that 24 percent of all students report being victims of cyberbullying, but for queer students that number jumps even higher, to 53 percent. She adds, “When the harassment and assault occur in schools, 62 percent of these students believe school staff will take no action; 34 percent reported that when an incident did occur at school, school staff did indeed do nothing in response.”

While some teachers and administrators overtly support hostility against queer students, many well-meaning teachers, she says, do so inadvertently by promoting traditional views of masculinity and femininity:

A few questions might help clarify biases that exist in our teaching practices. Look at your classroom library. Are there more biographies and stories about sports “heroes” than male dancers and fashion designers? Are athletes who are gay represented in the collection? To answer these questions, teachers could get students involved in an investigation of classroom and school libraries to foster critical literacy skills related to representations and bias in texts. . . . Even a teacher who does not outright bully teens may make professional choices and implement practices whose messages can be read as support for particular identities.

Berg adds that it’s not only queer students who need support against intimidation and harassment:

Any young person who diverges from a local social norm may suffer. For instance, . . . Phoebe Prince, who had just turned 15 when she killed herself, was called an “Irish slut” and “whore” on Twitter and Facebook because she was sexually active with two males who had statutory rape charges brought against them, though those were dropped. When sexually loaded words are thrown around, the language arts teacher is perfectly positioned to examine the meanings.

What can a good-hearted teacher do to help? Besides working to balance the bookshelf, Berg suggests “examining the historical development of derogatory terms that students may be using in the school;” “modeling the interrogation of social institutions, laws, and practices in fiction and fact that marginalize non-normative couples and people who live life on their own;” and “prompting colleagues to consider how their ideas and/or actions may be based in a heteronormative ideology.”

The one thing she says teachers of good will must never do is stand idly by.

The teacher who fails to act now in hopes that a nonconforming teen’s life will improve in adulthood condones the persecution of too many young people with “it gets better.” Transformational teaching makes it better.

She adds:

A more tolerant, dare I say loving, world will only be possible if both teachers and students are diligent in their questioning of the status quo and advocacy for people of all kinds.

Read the complete article “Tolerance to Alliance: Deconstructing Dichotomies to Advocate for All Students.”