One of the pastors at my church recently used this hook from a rap song by the artist Suga Free to make an important point about living out your beliefs. He used it specifically in terms of faith, but his point, I think, was really about the broader idea of being prepared for whatever comes because you are not waiting to do the right thing until necessary.
I’ve been thinking about that message and how it relates to our work at Operation Respect. Our goal is to help educators successfully transform their schools by creating a respectful, safe and compassionate school climate of learning. We’re not just an anti-bullying organization, a comment I still receive when describing our work to someone not familiar with who we are and what we do. Interestingly, that comment almost always seems to come from someone focused on the response to bullying side of things rather than on the prevention side.
Don’t get me wrong: Operation Respect does address bullying in our curriculum, but our four larger themes—expressing feelings, building community, resolving conflict creatively, and celebrating diversity—serve as the cornerstones for creating a positive school climate and culture (for adults as well as kids).
That’s the staying-ready part of the equation. If you put in the time to build a culture of compassion, peaceful conflict resolution, and celebration of diversity, then you will be ready when the occasional challenge comes along and will not need to go into crisis mode. It’s what creates that beautiful moment when you hear one of your students “correct” the behavior of another by saying, “We don’t do that here.” Yes, you will occasionally have to respond, but more emphasis on prevention will make those times fewer and farther between.
More work needs to be done—for school administrators, teachers, students, and parents—to understand that bullying is a symptom of a much larger problem. In still far too many schools I see the problem of bullying being “addressed” by activities centered around anti-bullying weeks or through one-off school assemblies. While these strategies can be useful, they are only effective when they are part of a broader effort that reinforces the beliefs of the school community through every interaction.
The same is true of efforts that focus on punishments and label children as “bullies” and “victims.” (Check out this earlier post on labels for more on the power of language.) While consequences may be an important response, too often they are disconnected from actually changing the circumstance that allowed the bullying to take place.
As educators who care deeply about the well-being of each of our students, we should, instead, be focused on creating the conditions for learning to take place and those include acceptance, safety, and respect. When school climate and culture has been positively transformed, when educators prioritize and reinforce social emotional learning as much as academic outcomes, bullying of all kinds can more easily and effectively be addressed—because an overarching infrastructure is in place. Students feel supported by their teachers and safe to be themselves among their classmates. They can more easily express their feelings and empathize with others. They are aware of how their actions affect those around them—both positively and negatively. And, they know what to do when inevitable mistakes are made.
It’s not easy, but if we stay ready, we ain’t gotta get ready.