Tales of a Classroom Bully

This post is about a thing that happened last week.

Actually, I guess you could say this started several weeks ago, but came to a head last week. I’m going to change all these kids’ names to tell this story.

Around six months ago, Sam and Terry, two 15 year old boys, were moved into my class in an effort to change the class atmosphere of both the M2 classes – our most challenging group. Terry and Sam seemed to integrate well with the other boys in the class: John, Harry, and Tim. About a month later, Simon and Pete joined us. That was around the time I noticed that the boys used Sam for all their vocabulary examples. “Sam’s face is dangerous.” or “An example of hurricane is Sam.” whether it fit or not. Sometimes they used ‘John’. Sam never participated and always just smiled and sighed.

I got worried about it and decided to put a stop to it. I told them “You can’t use people in the class for your example.” I also let my boss know. It abated somewhat, but I might have just made the problem less visible. In any case, about three weeks ago Sam went home. A couple hours later his mother called – he doesn’t ever want to come back. He’s crying from being bullied one too many times by these boys, especially Terry. Sam didn’t come back, and he asked us not to tell the other boys why he quit. Terry still mentions him in jest, for an example, sometimes. Or he mentions John as an example and John replies, “What? Am I Sam now?”

And that conversation is what started last week’s issue.

Terry: “John is a danger.”
John: “Am I Sam? Why do you say my name?”
Terry: “Okay okay. Sam is a danger.”
Me: Hey. This isn’t okay. When you do that, it’s bullying. 
Terry: “What is bullying?”
Students get out dictionaries. We translate the word.
Terry: “No way. I’m not bullying!”
Me: Why do you always use Sam’s name or John’s name in your example? How do you think they feel?

He didn’t say anything and I let it go.

10 minutes later I passed out a crossword puzzle for vocabulary review. Terry threw it down on his desk and said, “I’m not doing it.” I pointed at the door. “Goodbye.” “No no sorry sorry.” And he completed it and helped the other boys do it, too. I thought he was just acting big for his peers.

10 minutes after that I gave them their homework assignment. As the other students wrote it down and prepared to go, Terry said loudly, “We don’t have to do that homework.” I was irritated and gave him a look. Then they were gone.

I told my boss about the class afterwards and about Terry’s nagging at Sam and John as well as his attitude about classwork and homework that day. She said she’d talk to his mother.

My boss called me an hour later. Terry’s mother was shocked! Not my perfect son. He’s never had a problem with a teacher ever. She talked to him about it. He cried. He admitted about refusing to do classwork and homework. And he told her that everyone is like him in that class but I pick on him especially.

This set me thinking. Do I? What really happened that day? I wish I had recorded the class. 

Yeah, all those boys are pretty rude in general. This is the class that calls me “the foreigner”. 
Yeah, I probably call on  Terry more often than the other boys – he’s bright and is usually the best model for a good sentence. (And more likely to be partially paying attention.)
Yeah, on other days other boys (particularly John and Harry) also refuse to do work or homework. Their moms don’t get phone calls.
So why did Terry’s mom get a phone call? The bullying. That constant poke poke poke that forced Sam to quit and he was now turning on John. What did Terry tell his mom about that?

As it turns out, nothing. He failed to mention it. She called back in the middle of the night and spoke to my boss again. They had had a serious talk about it and now she understood what was up.

And now I have a lot of questions.

How do I tell whether I’m treating my students unfairly?

What do I do when a student thinks he is behaving normally but is actually bullying, especially in a class of teenaged boys who aren’t willing to look weak in each other’s eyes?

How do I teach or structure the class in a way that this can’t happen as frequently?

How do I turn this class around and improve the atmosphere and motivation?

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  • Hana Tichá  On June 16, 2014 at 2:48 am

    Hi Anne.
    This is going to be a looong reply 🙂
    I totally understand why you hesitated to post this. It’s a very sensitive subject and one is not exactly proud of having to deal with bullying in classes. One tends to think, this is one of the things that always happens elsewhere, not in our classes. No, I can reassure you that what you describe is something we all struggle with whether we like it or not.
    By coincidence, a couple of days ago, I experienced a similar situation. There’s a boy, John, who is much weaker than the rest of the class because he jumped in right in the middle of the course. He tries hard but he always ends up making mistakes. It takes him ages to finish a sentence but he’s brave and never gives up. I’ve noticed several times that two of the strongest students (boys of his age) always echo his mistakes silently and chuckle afterwards. What is worse, I know that John suffered from leukaemia when he was younger, and knowing this inevitably affects my feelings and actions.
    On Friday, I had enough and I must admit I did something quite unprofessional. One of the ‘chucklers’ answered my question with a mistake; he used mens instead of men. I corrected him sharply and added: If I were the same as you I would echo your mistake and start giggling. He looked puzzled (or rather pretended to be) so I went on: ‘I’ve noticed several times that you laugh at some of your mates when they make a mistake and I think it’s really rude of you’. He tried to deny it with a baffled gesture. The other kids confirmed my accusation: ‘Yes, that’s true, you always do it’. I gave him one more stern look and left the subject. It didn’t happen again that day. I believe that now that we’ve opened the subject, he’ll try to avoid this kind of misbehaviour in the future. If it does happen again, I hope it’ll be enough if I just pause and look at him to remind him of our exchange.
    You asked a very interesting question: What do I do when a student thinks he is behaving normally but is actually bullying? Yes, the problem is that sometimes the kids don’t even know that they are bullying someone. They think it’s fun for both. That’s why it’s important for the teacher to spot the symptoms in time and deal with them strictly and at once – as you did. First of all, I’m convinced we have to let students know explicitly what bullying is and that it’s not acceptable. That’s the very first step. Then, as you imply, it’s vital to take precautions and structure the lessons so that this doesn’t happen again. And here’s my final point: don’t feel guilty, it’s difficult to treat your students fairly under the circumstances you described – it’s just natural to feel overprotective towards the weaker human being and teach the bully a lesson.

    • livinglearning  On June 16, 2014 at 10:32 am

      Dear Hana,
      Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing your story as well. So often when I read posts full of awesome activities and class interactions, I’m beguiled into thinking I see the whole picture of other people’s classes and I feel like I must be the only one whose classes don’t always run smoothly or who can’t always create a nurturing class atmosphere. And I wonder where I am going wrong and how to do it better. I’m thinking that with Terry I should set up an explicit reminder – a word or something – to let him know when his behavior is inappropriate. And watch for these tendencies with other students to make sure I’m not being unfair to just one. Then I can feel better about how I deal with it.
      Thank you again.

  • Rose Bard  On June 16, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Anne, We ALL have a group or a moment even in our most fun groups that does not go well. You have done a wonderful job spotting the matter. Your questions are great and I’m sure you are going to find the best ways to deal with the issues that innevitable we all face in our classes. Your questions will guide and help you see things better. You raise a good point about recording. If you had recorded this particular class for few weeks, you would be able to answer your questions about the past. But as you can’t do that, keep your questions for the future and try to record it. I record most of my lessons, some groups are even getting used to it. I don’t use it yet as I would like to. But I have in the past, listened again to a particular part to answer questions that came to my mind, either about the lesson, the students or myself. So, in my opinion this is a practice worth getting used to. Now as for blogging…
    We tend to blog about successful lessons and activities, and others even to write wonderful guideline posts on how to teach and deal with stuff (they are reminders of alternatives imho), but believe me when I say that nothing is a fairy tale. It doesn’t happen like magic. It takes sorrow sometimes to build things right. And sometimes just a tweak solves the problem. We never know what works until we try and see for ourselves what happens.

    And ps. without the recording, what we might be posting in our blogs is just generalisations of what we think might have happen or we wish it did happen. It might have, but without analysing the transcript of an audio/video we won’t ever be sure of the impact of our actions, even the little ones.

    I have a blogpost about something not so good that happened to me and I hadn’t published yet because I didn’t have the time to finish the post.

    Cheer up! You are so commited to your learners. That counts a lot.

    • livinglearning  On July 14, 2014 at 11:40 am

      Dear Rose,
      I’m very sorry it has taken me such a long time to reply to you. Sometimes life just gets away from me and this month has been a time like that.

      You make so many good points in your comment: about recording, blogging, making generalizations (I’m definitely guilty of that sometimes!) and focusing on the positive.

      I don’t know if there is ever a way, even with a transcript, of knowing the impact of our actions in class since we can’t be inside our students’ heads.

      Thank you always for your support and encouragement. I really appreciate it.

      • Rose Bard  On July 14, 2014 at 10:06 pm

        Hi my dear friend! I know life get in the way. No worries!
        Exactly we don’t know what goes on inside their heads (or anyone’s head for that matter). that is why dialogue in IMHO is so important. When we talk we commit ourselves to what has been said. It’s ok to change our minds and take new routes and directions. Now I see that is ok, not to be right all the time and that playfulness mean. When I first started sharing the floor with the learners and listening to them, it was a huge step for me. I was the one that knew it all, and sometimes I fall back to that teacher again just to regain my counscious why in the first place I changed my perspective from teaching them to learning with them. We don’t deal just with knowledge. Wow if that was the case, that would be much easier, wouldn’t it? I mean as a native speaker you may even know more things about the language that I do. But it isn’t about just teaching them the language, it’s about managing relationships and when we are working with younger people in process of growing like teens it can be much more difficult to handle emotions because they know how to press the button and make us angry. This is the time that WE KEEP CALM: AND…. well, there is no right answer here is it? We can only try to use different approaches to deal with the situations that rise. Do the small changes to see if that shed any light into the matter. That is another reason why dialoguing with our PLN is so good for me. I’m always learning from you all and interesting enough your experiences come in hand now and then. Isn’t that amazing? Remember when Sirja shared about the challenges in her multi-level groups? And how that helped me with my own groups because I could relate to her eventhough the context of teaching was different? Now what I also love about John’s ideas and Freire too is that by dialoguing we get to know each other better and that helps we understand one another. Without words (not talking about english teaching) the classroom is empty. I know English is the content but it is not what define us. Language is the media to communicate so much more than that.
        I miss blogging and I miss you all. btw, I haven’t written that post yet either. 😉 Thanks for sharing with us this post.

  • Kathy  On July 4, 2014 at 12:21 am

    Hi Anne, I want to join Hana and Rose in assuring you that we all have our difficulties in the classroom, even if we don’t post about those situations. I thank you for sharing how you dealt with this case. Inspired by you,I will post about a problem I had some time ago (post has been in my drafts for a long time). I think it’s helpful to know that we all find ourselves facing tricky situations sometimes! Kathy

    • livinglearning  On July 14, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Dear Kathy,
      Thank you for your comment. It is good to know I am not alone in having tough times in class. Sometimes I think I’m feeling my way blindly about how to deal with them. I’ll be very interested to read your post – can you give me a link for it? I appreciate your support and I’m glad posting my own difficulties can be in some way helpful for other teachers.

    • Kathy  On July 23, 2014 at 9:28 pm

      Hi Anne, I’m sorry I didn’t see your reply until today for some reason! Here is the link to a post that you inspired: http://freerangekef.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-senior-english-club.html Although the experience was difficult, I think I learned from it. I wasn’t sure whether to link to your post or not (if you want me to, I will add a link!) Thanks for the motivation!

      • livinglearning  On July 23, 2014 at 11:47 pm

        I went looking for it last week and found it myself 😉
        Thanks again for stopping back.

  • Sandy Millin  On July 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Hi Anne,
    Thank you for sharing this. The original post and the comments are useful reminders that not everything goes well in the classroom. When we’re blogging, it can be easier to write about the good things and share the things that work. I saw a quote recently that when we’re online we can be made to feel bad because we’re comparing everything that happens in our lives to the highlights reels that other people are sharing, so we feel like the bad things only happen to us not to others. It’s important to remember that just because people don’t always share these things, that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.
    Keep sharing!

    • livinglearning  On July 14, 2014 at 11:46 am

      Dear Sandy,
      Thank you so much for reading and for your support. You are absolutely right that when online it is very tempting to compare our real lives to other people’s highlight reels. I am certainly guilty of it time and time again. I read the amazing blogs of you, and Rose, and Mike, and many many many others, and know that you’re all amazing educators. It’s comforting to know that even amazing educators have moments that are not amazing.

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