We have been engaged in a yearlong investigation into how to address the difficult issue of bullying in our school and in all the schools of our synagogue. I explained the rationale and the plan here in September in a blog post entitled “Sticks and Stones”. The mantle was taken up by Rabbi Jesse Olitzky in a powerful blog post here, entitled “Sacred Space is Safe Space”. The next step in the process was performing an institutional assessment for all students in our schools in Grades 2-12.
We surveyed students in Grades 2- 4 in both the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School and the Bernard & Alice Selevan Religious School, using a pencil and paper instrument chosen particularly for that grade range. A series of questions about verbal, physical and emotional acts experienced by students and performed by students were asked to measure the degree to which our students feel safe and protected. Questions were also asked about faculty and staff to measure the degree to which students feel their teachers are available and prepared to act on their behalves.
It is not a perfect survey and it was not proctored perfectly. It is, however, a starting point. Issuing the survey on a yearly basis should give us something to measure the degree to which we are succeeding in changing the culture of our schools. I would like to share just two results from the survey to start the conversation.
By the by, the schools graded out well. Although, it is difficult to suggest that any degree of failure is acceptable. The area where students self-reported the greatest degree of negative behaviors came not in the physical or the verbal. It came in peer exclusion.
This graph reports that 35% of students in Grades 2-4 in both schools feel they have been purposely been excluded by their peers. No other area of the survey scored anywhere near this high. This is an indication, to me, that when it comes obvious acts of harm – we are largely successful (although complete elimination is required). However, when it comes to the much more subtle, but equally painful act of social exclusion, we have work to do. Let’s add context by examining students’ perceptions of their teachers.
Again, the percentages look good. The overwhelming response is that by and large students believe their teachers are available to help and support. However, the fact that we have ANY students who believe their teachers would NEVER be there to help is unacceptable to us. It is not a perfect survey and I am sure there are margins of error included. But when it comes to creating a safe and sacred space for our children there can be no margin of error.
And so the difficult work of institutional change moves forward. (Results from the other surveys are forthcoming.)
Based on the data (not merely this survey, but disciplinary records, communication with parents, teachers, students, clergy, etc.) we believe we have to change the conversation. “Anti-bullying” (to us) means that we wait for bullying behaviors to take place and then act appropriately when they do. That is a defensive posture that admits these behaviors are inevitable and the goal is damage control. We can do better.
We need to build and grow a Community of Kindness. Instead of waiting for something bad to happen and respond, we need to go on the offensive with an all-out assault of lovingkindness. We need to recognize that only by becoming a community of kindness can we truly eliminate bullying and hurtful behavior within our walls.
This is much harder to achieve, but there are no quick fixes. All the surveys, assemblies, and teacher trainings in the world cannot get us there by themselves. On that all the research agrees. We are going to have to do the hard work of changing the culture one student, one teacher, one family, one act at a time. It is just as much the work of the office staff as it is the National Junior Honor Society. It has to happen on Sunday mornings in the Religious School carpool line and on Wednesday afternoons in the Day School lunchroom.
I am issuing a call to all my colleagues in the field: We have established “Communities of Practice” (CoP’s) for just about every aspect of running a school – Development, Admissions, Educational Technology, etc., in order to share and grow best practice. I think in an age where the click of a button can do irreparable harm, we would be well-served with a CoP for Kindness. Where better than in Jewish schools to ensure students a culture built on kindness?
We will be creating a series of 2-minute videos on this topic to stimulate conversation and begin the movement. I encourage parents, teachers, clergy, community members, colleagues and friends to make your own and share. There’s nothing more important and there’s no reason to wait. It begins now.