HRC Blog

Teacher’s Open Letter Will School You On How to Deal with Bullies

This guest post is from an e-mail sent by Berkeley Arts Magnet School educator Vanessa Sinai to colleagues after responding to an incident involving name-calling, steroyping and gossip on the playground. In May both Berkeley Arts Magnet and Bekeley Unified School District recieved Welcoming Schools Seals of Excellence for standing up to bias and bullying and embracing diverse communities.

Welcoming SchoolsDearest Staff,

I wanted to share a moment on the playground and the subsequent meeting that occurred in my classroom. Without a doubt, if I had not used or become familiar with the Welcoming Schools curriculum, I would not have had the tools to handle this. 

Sometimes I get really upset because I feel like since I do so much work around Welcoming Schools, this kind of thing shouldn’t happen in my classroom. After this incident I realized that this kind of thing will continue to happen for kids, because it always does, but the way we talk about it will change.

Student A:  Student B just called my friend a boy and lesbian because she cut her hair really short.
Me: Please send that student over to talk to me.
(Student B comes over to talk to me with no other students around)
Student B: Ms. Sinai, I never called her a lesbian and I did call her a boy but it wasn’t to her face. Student A heard me talking and went over to the girl to tell her what I said.
Me: It sounds like we are dealing with some name-calling, some gossiping, and stereotyping, all topics we have discussed in our classroom. Student B I wanted to first check to make sure you knew what a lesbian was. Do you know?
Student B: Yes, it is when two girls like each other
Me: Okay well I want to make it clear that first of all that lesbians are adult women in relationships. It doesn’t apply to two girls who are friends at school. Also, saying someone is a lesbian because of the way they look is a stereotype. Do you remember the lesson we had on stereotypes?
Student B: Yes
Me: Okay so can you judge someone or call them names or put them in a category because of the way they look.
Student B: No
Me: What are you going to do differently in the future?
Student B: I am not going to talk about other people or put them down.

This incident encompassed name-calling, gender stereotyping and gossiping.

It was important that I talked to the student who overheard the conversation and then reported it to the girl. She thought she was helping her out when she was actually spreading gossip. This led to a class meeting where I addressed all of the above.

While I was initially angry and wanted to reprimand the student immediately, it made more sense to have a discussion and make sure that student was clear on definitions. I’ve assumed in the past that a student knew what they were saying when they didn’t.

Discussing the situation with the student and discussing how their behavior should change in the future was equally important.

We had a class meeting to create a sense of accountability for the whole class and demonstrate ally behavior. Students were able to share examples of when they were involved in similar experiences and what they could do differently in the future.

(Before the class discussion I made sure to check with the student involved in the incident. I asked her if a class discussion was okay or if she needed some time before we discussed this as a class. She said she wanted everyone to know and talk about it. This might not always be the case. If the student feels uncomfortable about a class talk right after an incident I recommend using another anecdote to convey the same message to your students so the student targeted doesn’t feel put on the spot yet again).

My intention in writing about this teachable moment is to stress that I would not have handled it this way in the past. I credit Welcoming Schools for helping me know how to handle a situation like this in a calm and reflective way and then share it with the class.

If you ever need help addressing a specific incident similar to this or related to anti bullying/ally behavior, gender stereotyping or family diversity, please let me know. I am happy to help or get help from someone if I don’t know how to handle it.

To learn more about Welcoming Schools’ work in Berkeley, check out the Our Family Coalition (OFC) website. The HRC Foundation supports OFC to bring Welcoming Schools to Berkeley and other districts in California.

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