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Real Life: I'm a Principal

Contemplating who is responsible for dealing with bullying behavior at school.

By Michelle Hughes

Michelle Rosenfeld Hughes was born in 1960 to two public school teachers, grew up in New York City, and attended public schools. She spent the first twelve years of her teaching career as a progressive public middle school teacher in Red Hook, New York. In her twelfth year of teaching, No Child Left Behind policies took hold and, after struggling to find ways to continue real teaching and learning, like many, she found it impossible to remain teaching in the system. She left public education to begin the middle school program at High Meadow School in Stone Ridge, NY, in 2001 and assumed the headship in 2010. High Meadow is an independent not-for-profit progressive school serving 165 children from Nursery to 8th grade. In addition to her work in schools, Michelle is a writer of fiction and essays on education. She received her BA in Visual Arts from SUNY New Paltz and her MA in Elementary and Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education.

January 10, 2013

Editor's Note: Here's Chapter 9 of High Meadow School Principal Michelle Hughes' Journal Series, Real Life: I'm a Principal.  Take a look at her previous post here.

October 22, 2012

Today I am thinking about a little girl who is struggling to deal with the very subtle but consistent passive-aggressive behavior of another child -- behavior that is very hard for the teachers to detect, much less address.  This little girl really wants the friendship of the offending child, who has many wonderful attributes.  But try as the teacher might to create a caring classroom with a strong sense of belonging and engagement, she cannot seem to figure out the dynamic between these two girls or get to the bottom of the passive aggression. The parents of this child do not seem to believe that their daughter is capable of such behavior, and this prevents opportunities for growth in this area.

It was our suggestion to the parents of girl A, who are truly up in arms over this, that they seek strategies for their daughter, whose own pattern is not serving her: she seeks girl B out, consistently reports on her hurtful behavior to her parents, but cannot seem to bring herself to seek help from her teachers. We recommended play therapy with an experienced provider, which could help get to the bottom of girl A’s struggles in advocating for herself while giving her strategies for doing so. While the parents agreed to explore this avenue for their child, they felt so cheated by the fact that it is them who must do this work, when it is girl B’s behavior that is the root of the problem.  They feel their daughter is being held responsible for a problem she did not create. 

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In our administration team meeting, we talked at length about this issue.  What is within the teacher’s control and what cannot be? Can a teacher be expected to detect the subtle slights of a passive aggressive child and address that, particularly when the offended child will not come forward? Can the teacher really know whether these behaviors are truly directed at girl A or simply behavior that she projects in general, but girl A is so hooked into every wink and shrug of girl B that she takes these gestures personally?  Furthermore, once the groundrules are established in the classroom for how we are to treat one another, how far should a teacher go in the shaping of a particular child’s character when that is highly subjective?  At what point is a teacher blurring the line between teacher and psychotherapist?

We did not come to any firm conclusions, despite the long debate. I must be honest about my sadness and frustration. How is it possible that in a school such as ours -- where so much time, effort, and energy are spent cultivating a culture of kindness and belonging, and the expectations for productive problem-solving are high -- we can still have children participating in the cycle of bullying? I am awed by the persistence and elusiveness of this dynamic among humans, particularly the under-the-radar variety in which the females of our species can engage.

Read the final Chapter 10 here.