In the days since the National Walkout – a morning of school protests planned and executed by students around the country (including my own) – I have heard a lot of talk about “walking up” vs. walking out. People who advocate this “walk up” movement seem to imply that instead of protesting the slaughter of their peers, teens should be using their time to befriend the less popular students in their schools.
There are several things I find problematic with this statement:
For one, there is no reason I can see that students cannot do both. I can find no conflict in both “walking up” and walking out. It concerns me because it seems like an attempt to silence the brave students who are standing up and speaking out to stop a national problem that directly (and horrifically) affects them.
For another, it implies that saying hello to a troubled kid is going to magically change the culture of a school. It seems to argue that making more of an effort to acknowledge a marginalized child is going to stop bullying.
Let me be clear: I support “walking up.” I support saying hello. I support being a friend.
There is no teacher in the world that I can imagine who would be against children being kinder to each other.
But bullying, real bullying, is an issue that runs far deeper than a “hello” in the hallway. Bullying is a systemic problem. It is a school problem. It is endemic to the culture of an institution, and it cannot be solved but on that basis. It doesn’t end when one student says howdy to another. It ends when schools proactively and consistently create safe spaces for students to be different and foster tolerance and acceptance via guided conversation on a daily basis.
In my small middle school, we have 18 students. We have some quirky kids, some introverted kids, some wild and zany kids, some “cool” kids. Each morning, we spend 15 minutes in community meeting, touching base with each other, offering appreciation, solving problems, and sharing about our lives. Does everyone get along? Certainly not. But when conflicts arise, we mentor our kids by facilitating conversation. We teach them on a daily basis that you do not have to like every person in order to treat them with respect. We work with our students side-by-side to foster real, honest, productive communication.
Yes, sometimes it’s exhausting, and sometimes it feels non-stop, but it is so worth it, because it is so necessary. It is what I consider the true work of my profession, far beyond instruction in reading strategies and math theorems.
I do not blame larger schools or their teachers for their inability to foster this kind of dialogue, but I do blame our education system as a whole. You cannot pack 3,000 kids into a building with 100 adults and expect those adults to foster communication or teach real-world interpersonal skills. The set-up precludes the work.
Let me say that again, for the people in the back: I do not blame the teachers or the schools for being challenged in doing this critical work. It’s incredibly difficult given the organization of these places of learning. But I do blame the institution of education in our country for failing to recognize that the period of development in which we send our kids to school is critical for far more than just reading and writing.
If we want to stop bullying, we need to mentor our kids. And if we want to mentor our kids, we need more than 35 minutes a day with a 30:1 ratio. There is far greater reform to be done in education in America, and it needs to happen at the top just as much as it is happening at the bottom.
By all means, tell your kids to walk up and say hi to someone today. It’s a beautiful gesture, and it may mean a lot to an individual.
But do not expect that that alone will stop bullying. Do not expect it to stop a school shooting.
Most of all, do not pretend that by lauding anti-bullying ideals you can also ignore gun control issues.
Our kids deserve better than that.