By Teachers, For Teachers
We recently sat down with anti-bullying activist Jodee Blanco, author of the New York Times Bestseller Please Stop Laughing At Me… and the recently released sequel Please Stop Laughing At Us: One Survivor’s Extraordinary Quest to Prevent School Bullying.
Here are some excerpts from that interview:
What made you decide to leave your career as a celebrity publicist to become an anti-bullying activist?
When the tragedy at Columbine high school occurred, I became frustrated by the nation’s response. What happened there had nothing to do with the availability of guns. That’s when I decided to go public with my story. From fifth grade through high school I was tormented by my classmates for the same reason so many other kids are bullied today, simply for being “different.” After Columbine, I wrote my memoir Please Stop Laughing At Me... I wanted bullying victims to know that they’re not alone, that someone does understand, and that if I survived, so can they. And I wanted bullies to understand that it’s not just joking around, that bullying can damage you for life. When the book came out, I started receiving hundreds of emails from bullied kids begging me to come to their schools and speak. I packed a bag and started touring the nation’s schools. That was the genesis for my anti-bullying crusade which is still going strong, seven years later.
When I go into a school now, I do a program called It’s NOT Just Joking Around! which consists of a student presentation, a teacher workshop, and an evening parent/family seminar which is open to the public. The primary message I communicate is threefold: bullying damages you for life; bullying just isn’t the mean things someone does, it’s all the nice things they never do, like letting a fellow classmates sit alone at lunch or never inviting them to anything; and that if you are shunned, there is nothing wrong with you, it’s everything that’s right about you that makes you a target.
I’m blessed the American school system has welcomed me with such open arms. To date, I’ve given my program to well over a half million people, and I’ve been able to successfully intervene in nearly two-dozen bullying related suicides.
How does your experience qualify you to instruct teachers and parents on how to change the culture of schools?
If you were walking down the street, fell into a hole, and two people stopped offering to help—one of them was a celebrated academic who had done his doctoral thesis on the thermal dynamics of holes, but had never been in one himself—and the other was someone who had recently fallen down the very same hole you were in and was willing to crawl back inside and show you the way out, whose assistance would you opt for in that moment of crisis?
Bullying is at a moment of crisis in our schools and I’m the latter. I’m the only adult survivor turned activist who’s utilizing her own painful past for the purpose of motivating change. While I respect many of the research based anti-bullying programs and agree that they can serve a vital role in helping to make our kids safer both emotionally and physically, there’s still a crucial need for someone like me who can relate to these hurting students on a rare visceral level, and who is able to consistently earn their trust and their willingness to become more compassionate.
My objective when I go into a school is straightforward — I re-enact key scenes from my youth and let students witness first-hand what I went through, enabling them feel what I felt and what their classmates whom they abuse also feel, all in an effort to inspire them to be more compassionate with one another. Most kids don’t realize the long-term damage they’re causing by how they treat one another. I make them aware and want to change.
My work has been recognized by many government and educational agencies including The Department of Health and Human Services, The Department of Justice, The National Catholic Educational Association, The National Crime Prevention council to name several. I’m humbled by their support.
Obviously, your book and presentation provide a multitude of techniques for teachers, administrators and parents to address bullying. What is the first step a teacher should take to help a bullied student?
The worst thing that an adult, be it a teacher or a parent, can say to a bullied student is “Ignore the bullies and walk away.” It’s a cliché and never works. We preach to students don’t be a bystander, if you see someone getting picked on, defend that person, but then we’ll turn around and say, if you’re the one getting bullied, just ignore it. Isn’t that a mixed message? In effect, by telling a student to ignore the bully, we’re asking them to be bystander in their own life.
Another reason advising someone to ignore the bully is a mistake is because by doing so, you’re inadvertently enforcing adult logic in a teen circumstance and it rarely if ever works. In the adult world, if you ignore someone who’s bothering you, chances are that they will stop the negative behavior, but in the world of kids, the opposite applies. If you ignore the mean, popular students, whom I refer to as “Elite Tormentors,” (caring popular students are “Elite Leaders”) they aren’t going to stop harassing you, they’re going to escalate the level of abuse until they get a reaction.
Other clichés that offer little comfort or relief are “the bullies are just jealous” or “20 years from now, you’re going to be success and the kids who are picking on you will be nowhere in life.” Those clichés are universally ineffective and make the student feel as if you’re dismissing their pain.
The bullied child is bleeding in the form of loneliness. The most important thing you can do is to help them get an interim social life to help stop that bleeding long enough to buy you the time to deal with the larger issues. Contact the park district, local library and community center one town over from where the school is located, and request information about their organized activities for kids. Most offer everything from youth theater and computer clubs to book clubs and sports. Review the list of activities with your student, then share it with the parents, encouraging them to enroll their child. The reason I suggest it be one town away is to insure the student gets a fresh start with new faces—this is vital.
My parents and teachers got me involved in a theater troupe for children two neighborhoods away from where I attended school. These friendships saved my life... literally. I know this seems like such basic common sense, but for some reason, many adults overlook it.
How should teachers deal with bullies?
Traditional punishment doesn’t work. It only makes an angry child angrier, which contributes to the cyclical abuse in the school system. I espouse an innovative approach to supplement traditional punishment, which I call compassionate discipline. The whole premise is finding creative opportunities where kids can naturally access their empathy and develop it like a muscle.
For example, let’s say there are a group of kids who are always picking on the have-nots at school. Instead of giving them a detention or suspension, have the school sponsor a luncheon for a local homeless shelter. Have this clique of kids, who pick on classmates with less money, serve food at this luncheon. Also, require them to interview at least two of the homeless people, ask them about their dreams and aspirations and write a paper about it.
The problem with the current system of punishment in our schools is that it only emphasizes the consequences of being cruel, but it doesn’t expose kids to the rewards of being kind. Until we completely renovate our approach to discipline, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.
You can’t command compassion, you have to inspire it. Once inspired, it has more power to motivate changes in a student’s behavior that any detention of suspension ever could because it’s igniting it from the inside out.
Can you describe a specific instance of change have you witnessed with students you’ve worked with?
Most adults think the key to reaching a kid is how strong you are, but it’s the opposite. It’s how vulnerable you’re willing to be that really gets to their hearts.
One morning I had just concluded my student presentation, and a group of 8th graders approached me. They explained that they were part of the cool crowd, and felt terrible about how they had been treating one of their classmates and asked if I would arrange for a meeting so they could apologize to him. Within thirty minutes, a shy, awkward student named Eric was standing before those who had been bullying him for years. He asked if he could say something to them before they apologized. He told his tormentors that he didn’t blame them for thinking he was weird, that sometimes he acted that way because he had a disorder called Asperbgers Syndrome, and then he explained what that was. As some of these bullies began to tear up, Eric went onto explain that that wasn’t the only reason he sometimes behaved oddly. “You know how you guys will bang erasers on the chalkboard really loud until I start to scream and then you laugh at me?” he asked. His peers nodded guiltily. “The reason I always scream isn’t because of my Aspergers. It’s because one day last year my dad told me he couldn’t take having a retard for a son anymore, and then he got his gun out of the drawer and shot himself. Every time you bang those erasers, I think it’s the gun again.”
In that moment, several of his classmates got up and hugged him, begging his forgiveness for their cruelty and asking for his friendship. That day changed all their lives. I still get periodic updates from those kids, letting me know how they’re doing.
Whatever change I’m able by the grace of God to inspire is what keeps me going because I can tell you that reliving my past to thousands of kids every day, week after week, year after year is difficult work. If I wasn’t making a tangible, measurable difference, I wouldn’t have the energy, courage or determination to continue.
Do you have a final message to teachers?
Only that of anyone would d like to learn more about my anti-bullying work or is interested in bringing me to their school, please feel welcome to peruse my website at www.jodeeblanco.com