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To cut down on bullying, transform school culture

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Christopher Nelson, teacher
Christopher Nelson has been an elementary educator for 26 years in Minnesota, employed in public schools in both the suburbs and inner city. He has also spent five years at an international school in Japan. He is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Nelson

By Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson has been an elementary educator for 26 years in Minnesota, employed in public schools in both the suburbs and inner city.  He has also spent five years at an international school in Japan. He is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.

School culture transcends everything in education. My definition of school culture is simple and not very technical: Everyone, from the principal, teachers, custodians, educational assistants, cafeteria staff and, most importantly, parents and students, all agree on the same positive principles of education.  In short, it's "What we do here." 

When new students or teachers arrive at a school, they quickly find out what's allowed or not. In the case of a bully, teachers, staff, administrators and students all agree on what's not OK, and the group relays that message to the bully. The challenge is to assimilate the bully into feeling like he or she now belongs to this new group, rather than feeling ostracized. 

It's difficult, but if the school can welcome the bully, and I think this is key, you've started to develop positive school culture, because instead of feeling pushed out, the bully now has something to push for, and it's being a positive member of a group. Victims, or targets of bullying, also have a stronger connection, and learn to stand up for themselves because of that perceived sense of support.

Teachers, administrators and support staff need that same environment, because even among fellow educators I see bullying happen all the time. Sometimes it happens in the name of maintaining standards, or because one person feels inferior to another. A philosophy that says "we don't do that here" has to be imbedded into the teachers, administrators and staff, in order for it to be passed along to the students and parents. All with the responsibility and freedom to enforce it for the greater good must recognize it equally. In class, I often quote Paul Wellstone:  "We all do better when we all do better."

In my experience as an educator, I've never been able to identify a specific formula to develop a positive school culture. One piece, however, does stand out. That is a specific, shared, strong vision of what direction the individual school is going, and how it's going to get there. It's more than a mission statement, because this vision drives decisions made about everything in the school, from what and where students eat to the publicized choices of what and how they learn. 

This development must come from within the school, as a shared decision-making process including parents, staff, teachers and students so that ownership and empowerment can occur. I've seen mixed results when successful principals were transferred to other schools or into other roles to reproduce the "magic" they had created. So school culture apparently doesn't result from a ready formula that can be passed along.

Bullying in schools is something that needs to be addressed, right now, and strongly. I have experienced it myself as a student and professional educator. I've witnessed it in my classrooms and tried very hard to deflect, educate and stop it. I've succeeded and failed, using different strategies. 

Here in Minnesota, the Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying is working on recommendations due next month. I know there is no one formula, but I also know that developing a strong, positive school culture is key to eliminating bullying and ultimately, to improving the quality of education in today's schools.