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March 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 6

Perspectives / Uncivil Liberties

    Perspectives / Uncivil Liberties - thumbnail
      A 2nd grader whose name you don't even know curses you on the playground. A parent whose son you voluntarily tutor after school calls to blame you for his son's low grade. An administrator with whom you have an appointment rushes you out the door before you have a chance to voice your concern about . . . about what? Oh yes, about your perception that the school is becoming a ruder and more impersonal place.
      Now it is time to teach your class, modeling for your students respect and caring. Will your bad mood affect your teaching?
      Incivility in schools often runs in a cycle. Rudeness and disrespect provoke more of the same, and escalating levels lead to disengagement, alienation, anger, depression, and violence. To stop this pernicious cycle, schools have tried many strategies. They have created smaller classes so that students are less anonymous; they have offered conflict resolution programs to help students assertively handle problems; they have required service learning programs to guide students to become more compassionate.
      Most of these solutions, however, focus directly on students and do not change the whole school community. The authors in this issue suggest important ways to build the adult-student relationships that will create trust—and curtail the meanness—at school.
      First, intervene. In a survey funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2001),students identified bullying as the most serious problem they encounter at school. Almost one-third said that they had been involved in bullying, either as the victim, the bully, or both. The bullies told why they bullied—to feel powerful, to get an audience reaction, to prevent themselves from being victimized, to enjoy the victim's distress.
      In “A Profile of Bullying at School” (p. 12), Dan Olweus, the foremost international expert on this subject, shows that all students become, willingly or unwillingly, involved in bullying, with roles ranging from henchmen to passive bystanders to defenders of the victim. Even so,the attitudes, behavior, and routine of relevant adults play a crucial role in determining the extent to which bullying problems will manifest themselves.
      Olweus's intervention program teaches adults and students to act together to limit opportunities and provide fewer rewards for bullying behavior.
      Second, connect. In “Words Can Hurt Forever,” James Garbarino and Ellen deLara (p. 18) document that adolescents want to connect more with their parents and teachers. Being strict and demanding toughness from children does not necessarily teach them to stand up for themselves and others. Rather, well-loved children and those who feel most connected to their school are the ones who are often able to demonstrate that bad treatment of others is not OK. If there is any doubt about what students need to feel safe, ask them directly, these authors suggest.
      Next, build trust. If it works for children, is it any surprise that trust is what adults want from their school, too? In Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider's research study of Chicago schools undertaking reform (p. 40), they found that in schools where administrators, teachers, and parents shared decision making and worked together, student achievement was more likely to go up. In bureaucratic schools where teachers felt no one was listening to them, efforts to boost achievement rarely got off the ground.
      Finally, reflect. Creating caring schools is not an easy task, as educators know. In “Moral Teachers, Moral Students,” Rick Weissbourd (p. 6) eloquently describes the adult's complex role at school:Educators influence students' moral development not only by being good role models—important as that is—but also by what they bring to their relationships with students day to day: their ability to appreciate students' perspectives and to disentangle them from their own, their ability to admit and learn from moral error, their moral energy and idealism, their generosity, and their ability to help students develop moral thinking without shying away from their own moral authority. That level of influence makes being an adult in a school a profound moral challenge.
      Mohandas Gandhi said, “If we are to reach real peace in this world . . . we shall have to begin with children.” But, as our authors make plain in this issue, the children take their cue from the adults.
      End Notes

      1 Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2001, November). Bullies and their victims, 4.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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