Eight out of 10 schoolchildren report that they have been bullied at some time. It sounds terrible, and for the victims of constant harassment, it is.
Of course, bullying should have no place in schools or society. But the phenomenon clearly has varying degrees of severity, and much depends on the perceptions of the "victim". One child might see a single incident involving the loss of the last crisp in the packet, or not being picked for a team in a kick-about game, as bullying.
But that is not in the same league as systematic exclusion from a group, constant bad-mouthing of your family, your possessions, your appearance, the way you walk or talk, extortion, or actual bodily harm - all carried out by people who are (or want to appear to be) bigger and stronger than you.
As a relatively new teacher, you need to have your wits about you if you are faced with bullying issues in your class or tutor group. And you cannot dismiss the possibility that what you have discovered could be extremely painful and damaging to the victim.
But you must also be alert to the possibility that your good nature and kindliness are being manipulated by an attention-seeker, or by a pupil who needs particular support to cope with the relative brutishness of day-to-day school life.
SPOT THE VICTIM
Do you have any pupils who:
* change their pattern of attendance or have unexplained absences or lateness?
* are underachieving, maybe just in some subjects, having done well previously?
* are left out of things, or are the last to be chosen for teams or group activities?
* don't mix with others in the playground, or eat alone?
* seem to have mood swings?
* are reluctant to go on school trips?
* adopt non-assertive body language, as if they want to become invisible?
* seem to be unable to look after their personal possessions, such as pens, games kit, school bags?
* are the last to leave the classroom after a lesson or registration?
* stay close to members of staff during breaks and lunchtimes?
* are the target of jokes or on the butt end of teasing comments?
* become uncommunicative?
* are new to the school and don't seem to be settling in very well?
If you've noticed any of the above, it may be a sign that a pupil is being bullied. In the early stages, clues will be small but will manifest themselves through altered behaviour. Physical signs, if there are any - damaged clothing, bruises - come later. As the responsible adult, your job is to be alert to those little clues. It can take a long time for a victim to complain, by which time the relationships and behaviour are often firmly rooted and harder to change.
HOW THE PROBLEM THRIVES
Every school has an anti-bullying policy, and everyone agrees that bullying is a whole-school issue. But until everyone involved in the school - teachers, pupils, helpers, administrators, caretakers - understands that bullying is wrong and is prepared to act to prevent it, the problem will continue. Bullying happens because the community allows it to happen.
In a bullying culture, people can adopt one of four roles: bully, victim, onlooker, or (all too rarely) the one who speaks out against bullying. The bully cannot operate alone - this is a group activity. Bullies need both helpers and an audience, and know how to manipulate their responses.
Helpers will join in, usually with enjoyment, without realising that they have been entrapped, too, and play along - perhaps fearing that they might be the next target.
The audience gives feedback to the bully, even if they do nothing more than watch and laugh. Even the silent majority who don't get involved offer complicity by not speaking out against it. We might believe that bullying needs quiet corners and unsupervised areas to operate, but it can happen anywhere - in the street on the way to school, in the classroom, even in the privacy of a pupil's own room if a bully chooses harassment by text message. Once a bully has sensitised the victim, even an apparently harmless comment can invoke fear in a way that is invisible to the onlooker. Bullying takes over the victim's whole life.
ARE YOU MAKING IT WORSE?
Of course, I am not suggesting that you are a bully yourself, but how do you use your power as a teacher? What kind of role model are you? Are you an autocrat? - "This is my classroom, and this is how we do things." Such a style reinforces the message that control stems from exercising personal power, rather than from procedures and systems, or appeals to reason and accepted school-wide rules. If you show that anger and threats get results, then what behaviour are you modelling for the bully?
Are you a teacher who lets pupils "work out their own problems"? And do they do that in a power vacuum created by your unwillingness to intervene in pupils' lives? Pupils of all ages love to have power over their peers.
If you don't exercise power, they will. If you overlook the sly kick at someone's bag, or fail to check personal comments, then at the very least you are condoning disrespect.
It is easy to let things slip, especially when your patience is stretched on a wet Thursday afternoon, but you can present the right kind of role model to your pupils by:
* being well organised and making it clear that your class is a safe place where learning happens
* using lots of positive feedback and praise
* taking an interest in your pupils, getting to know them and finding reasons to value their achievements
* adopting a problem-solving rather than a punitive approach.
DEALING WITH BULLIES
There are no quick fixes, but you can play a vital role in eliminating the problem by bearing the following points in mind:
* Don't go beyond the limits of your competence, experience and role.
Listen to what pupils are telling you and be alert to warning signs. Work within school policies, consult form tutors and share your concerns with relevant colleagues - heads of year or other responsible staff - about what should be done next.
* Keep a record of any conversations you might have with pupils. Make it clear that what they say to you cannot be treated as confidential, but will have to be taken further and involve others.
* Encourage pupils who say they are being bullied to keep a record of incidents. It will show that you are taking them seriously and encourage them to reflect on what they feel is happening. It will also create evidence to support further action.
* Bullies may need help to improve their social skills. Exercising psychological or physical power over others is not the only way to establish an identity. Try offering bullies some responsibility.
* Help the victim to develop social skills, too. Plan lessons that encourage pupils to work co-operatively with others.
* Don't bully the bullies. If you start to play the "big bad teacher" and intimidate the bully, you will simply demonstrate that might is right. So be a good role model yourself - show that your actions are based on reason and respect.