Insights – celebrating positive relationships and student individuality

Dear Community,

This week, prominent author and educator, John Marsden, provoked controversy with his statements around bullying. Marsden said that: “A lot of the so-called bullying in schools is just kids giving each other feedback…it’s rare for a child who’s got likeable qualities to be treated in some sort of horrific or bullying way. Usually there is a range of behaviours which have caused friction to develop.”

In the aftermath of this statement many personal reflections have been shared which detailed a litany of horrible experiences that the contributors had suffered in their schooling. In almost every scenario I read, the rationale for this behaviour had nothing to do with the victim’s character and had far more to do with an exercise of power on the part of the perpetrators. Suggesting that a student who was targeted for their race, familial background, physical appearance or other factor beyond their control should be more “likeable” amounts to victim blaming. Using the euphemism “feedback” to characterise what was often exceptionally cruel verbal and sometimes dangerous physical attacks has also raised the ire of those trying to overcome the associated trauma.

While it is a shame that Marsden’s statement has refreshed the pain for these victims, I do think that there is merit in raising discussion around the topic of bullying so that, as a community, we can all enhance our awareness and take responsibility for contributing to maintaining the safest environment we can for all our students and staff.

I deliberately refer to staff here, as it is a discouraging reality that according to media reports some of the worst bullying behaviour that occurs in Australian schools can be that of parents directed towards staff members.

One aspect of Marsden’s quote that has been neglected in much media coverage is his use of the term “so-called bullying”. This refers to a phenomenon that I believe every educator would be familiar with. The term bullying has become a catch-all term that is frequently misused to characterise disputes, arguments or various conflict. However, the term has a very specific meaning in a schooling context. The Australian government’s “Bullying. No way!” website defines bullying as “repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons. Behaviours that do not constitute bullying include: mutual arguments and disagreements, not liking someone or a single act of social rejection, one-off acts of meanness or spite or isolated incidents of aggression, intimidation or violence.”

Misusing such a laden term can be unhelpful as even though other behaviours can cause similar damage, appropriate responses need to be targeted to the specific scenario. Anti-bullying programs are well-researched and are focused on applying proven strategies to ceasing the repetitive patterns of behaviour that can cause such harm.

It is an unfortunate truism that students, and indeed all humans, will sometimes be hurtful to one-another. Though this can be developmentally appropriate this is little comfort for those suffering as a result of poor behaviour.

It is disappointing that the emphasis of Marsden’s comments have been on what is wrong with the victim. A far more useful discussion relates to our communal responsibility to provide for a harmonious environment.

No school, and indeed no community, is free of unwarranted and unwanted negative behaviour. At King David we try to adopt leading proactive strategies that encourage safety and harmony in many ways. Our wellbeing lessons focus on the development of friendship skills, we have trained all our staff in respectful relationships, and our emphasis on emotional literacy and intelligence provides students with the tools to better manage themselves and their interactions. We also teach the importance of bystander intervention and have adopted a strong Positive Behaviour Policy.

Despite all of this there are invariably times when we are disappointed by negative behavioural choices. In these instances, we adopt our industry leading restorative practice protocols which prioritise relationship restoration and maintaining the dignity of all parties We also maintain a dedicated student email address student.help@kds.vic.edu.au allowing students to privately raise concerns in a non-confrontational manner.

Our most successful strategy relates to investing in a school culture that aims to celebrate positive relationships and student individuality. We do not want to be a cookie-cutter environment which produces a student archetype but rather aim to support students to be the best version of themselves. Where this succeeds, we create avenues for students to recognise that our individual differences are what makes us stronger as a community.

Our students are growing up in a time where “group think” and nasty anonymous commentary are the mainstay of social media, indeed the vitriolic responses to Marsden’s commentary is an example of this. With this in mind, I believe that it is even more important that our schools act as a haven where our children can learn alternatives to the cynicism, constant judgment and negativity and can instead focus on developing mutual, respectful and flourishing relationships.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light

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