Alan Flashman
Alan Flashman

The Children of Israel 14: Back to School, Back to Bullying

From the number of kids I see in my practice that have been emotionally hurt by bullying, the phenomenon is hardly rare in Israel. It seems to me that between a quarter and a third of kids have been involved either as the victim or (a much larger number) in collusion with the bullying. It is my impression from teaching and consulting educational personnel for three decades that the response of non-family adults to the non-family social phenomenon if bullying ranges from woefully inadequate to entirely absent. The principle soundtrack that accompanies the gesture of raising hands in despair runs, “We cannot control it so what can we do?”

First I want to consider the social environment that supports such an obvious cop-out to the extent that well trained and well-meaning educators don’t even notice they are copping out.

Where on earth could the thought arise that only assuming absolute social control of a social phenomenon has impact?

My answer: The Army. The degree of influence of army thinking on Israeli civilian structure is enormous. When you realize that almost all educational personnel have spent significant formative developmental time in the army, you may be getting closer to the societal subtext that an order is an order or else it is nothing at all. This is a form of authority that is hard to compete with. I mean that seriously. Unless soldiers leaving the IDF are debriefed and are formally taught that the army way is neither the best nor the only way to manage social situation, it is only natural that military (male, macho, hierarchical) “leadership” will become a sort of default m.o.  Add to this the not well publicized but well known phenomena of appointing IDF retirees with management level positions in social welfare, educational and government social policy units, the default gets a big boost. I once asked the director of a residential treatment unit that had asked for a staff consultation on what his theory of management was based. Without batting an eyelash the retired colonel replied, “Divide and conquer.” Needless to say my success in this consultation was not very deep. He was expecting my help in “taking control.”

In such an environment we need to ask first whether bullying takes place at the level of the staff. This is not a welcome question but any systems consultant would know (in Israel not necessarily say for justified fear of being sacked) that “problematic behavior” as the least powerful level (kids in school) raises the question if such behavior does not reflect upon a similar phenomenon at the highest level. I am reminded of one of my favorite stories, which appears in the introduction to Lyn Mikel Brown’s and Carol Gilligan’s deservedly popular Meeting at the Crossroads,  a work almost completely ignored in Israel. The authors worked on a substantial grant and were asking “girls” in a boarding school about their thoughts on practically everything. Word got out that the girls had figured out which researcher wanted to hear what replies and were accommodating what they thought were expectations of them. At a staff meeting many teachers critiqued the girl indignantly for not speaking the truth to the researchers. On teacher, Louise, achieved social immortality by asking her colleagues “And just when do we ever speak the truth to each other?” The first year of the study was scrapped in favor of a process that gave place to speak the truth. Since when, to paraphrase, does the staff of a school speak openly about bullying within the staff?

The current mood in the Ministry of Education would not seem open to any of these questions. The current Minister speaks publicly of his plan to “control” [LISHLOT means to control and to govern]. It is precisely this political environment that, to my thinking, makes what happens in each classroom more significant, more urgent and more difficult. I believe that many Americans of my generation (college class of  ’71) will recognize this mixture of urgency and difficulty over many decades in the USA.

Back to the schoolroom. Let us take as a working assumption that children learn from their environment, as much from what is said as from what is not said. Anyone who has raised kids will recognize this as a troubling finding right at home. Now the kids in the class have become organized around bullying a (usually vulnerable in some way) child. After 120 years or more of Freud’s presence in everyone’s thinking (either learning from or raging actively against) one could at least venture the thought that vulnerability – and difference- creates a sense of vulnerability in all kids. Left to their own devices, in a group they copes with threat by splitting the group – in fantasy – into the vulnerable and the invulnerable. The more you bully one vulnerable child, the less you feel your own limitations. This is neither right nor wrong, it is human and immature. And left alone, it works too well, by which I mean that the bullies get what they are after, a (fantasied) invulnerability. At least for a while, – In a class it could be a few years. What the class does not need is an attack, a scolding; that just reinforces the need for invulnerability. What the class needs is a meeting, a conversation about vulnerability, led by a teacher whose own vulnerability is in reasonable balance. For example, she was not bullied by a principal or by parents about the presence of bullying.

Here is how this conversation might go in a fifth grade class (I am sketching content, there are many ways to enact and concretize the content):

“I have something it is important for me to talk with all of you about. I see myself as the teacher of all of this class, altogether you are children that I love and want to help to grow.

“Growing up is not easy. Sometimes we feel small, or frightened, or that something could stop us from growing.

“When we feel frightened, we try to do whatever we can to protect ourselves. Naturally, at first we might protect ourselves in a way that leaves someone else less protected. That is natural, but it is a mistake that we can correct, so that we can all feel protected together.

“I believe that just now as a group there is something going on that is such a mistake and I want to help you to correct it. I will keep talking with you about it until I have found a way that really helps all of you.

“You probably see around you how some groups of adults have bad things to say about other adults. When this happens, and it is a mistake that can happen to me as well, I realize that if I have bad things to say about, say tall people, thin people, short people, anyone different from me, I am dividing a group that I myself feel better not dividing. Maybe I was feeling too short, so I sit around with some friends making fun of people shorter than me. But I realize I am using making others feel bad to make me feel ok. And that is always a mistake that I can correct. I can always make myself feel even better by making friends with someone who is different and feeling a part of a total group where we all respect each other. Then I don’t have to be afraid that if I don’t put someone down first then someone might get together with others to put me down.

“That is what I want for you. I want to help you to find your way to feel safe all together in this class. That is my responsibility, and just now I am thinking I have not done a good enough job. Perhaps some of you have felt that I am part of the problem, that I have played favorites. I want to hear this if that is how you have been feeling. If I have made that mistake, I want to correct myself. Let’s see how you can find a better way without putting anyone down. Let’s give a few days, you can ask me for help if you need it. We will talk about this in a few days; I will not feel that I have done my job until all of you feel safe in the class such that no one needs to put anyone down and no one feels put down.  I am sure that I will know when we have all corrected this mistake, I want to hear from everyone until we have done this.”

The teacher then recognizes that the leader of the bullying is likely to become very vulnerable as the pseudo-solution breaks down.

Is this science fiction? Does it take an “exceptional” teacher? Not in my experience. My experience in Israel and in the US is that most teachers would welcome the opportunity not to be silenced or disempowered by bullying. Most think along the lines I have suggested because that is what their experience with kids teaches them. Most would welcome a bit of help in some of the precise phrasing.

No, I do not think teachers are not up to the job. The obstacle most difficult to overcome is the “That is not your job” conundrum.  In the current hodgepodge of Israeli educational “theory,” we have become a society that simply does not know what it wants from its schools (except babysitting). There is no clear directive about the mission of the school for social education.

Let me tell a story here, retolrd from Losing It . When I first came to Beer Sheva in the early eighty’s, the guidance counselor of the leading high school asked me to help her understand what on earth was a “Hour of Education” [Sha-at Chunich]. The Ministry had allocated one weekly hour of the high school curriculum to a meeting of the main teacher [mechanechet] with the class. The question was based upon the assumption that this was an American import, so I would know. But I did not. In the US the guidance counselor prepares for college admissions and does nothing like social interventions. I said, “I don’t know but let me help you invent it. Bring together yourself, your principal, two teachers, two students and two parents and let’s discuss what would work for you.” It might be no surprise that the only useful outcome of the meeting came from the students. They asked, “Why is the door of the teachers’ room always closed?” It turns out that the expansion of this question went “In a few years we will be adults. Don’t you want to teach us by example how adults manage themselves at work?”

A decade later I learned the true origin of “Chinuch.” The first wave of FSU adolescents encountered the Israeli school system and wanted to make a report – in Russian – to prepare next year’s newcomers. The kids wrote that there is a new idea called CHINUCH which they translated in Russian as vospitanie. It turns out that a full circle had just turned. Vospitanie was familiar to me from Uri Bronfenbrenner’s important Two Worlds of Childhood as the Russian word for social education back when the Soviet Union still paid attention to this. The adolescent immigrants of the nineties were schooled after all of this was in disrepair. They thought it was an Israeli idea. And I learned that it was indeed an Israeli socialist idea from decades earlier, a Soviet, not American import.

Today I would see CHINUCH as opportunity and responsibility taken upon herself by the teacher who draws from her own direct experience with children the courage and conviction that social behaviors require an adult presence.

If you are a veteran with this blog, you will anticipate the following explanatory theses:

  1. Governmental dispotif will neither favor nor allocate such a role.
  2. Taking this provides children with a developmental need in a participatory manner. It counteracts the basic Childism of current Israeli society.
  3. The choice to give voice to an adult response expresses the pastoral dispotif to which Israel gives lip service only. You could gain faint praise for effort but no support for doing this seriously.
  4. The choice to respond involved a meeting, not a sermon; a process between people, not a content to be transmitted.
  5. The meeting succeeds if it creates room for mutual presence. The line I traced above is only half of the meeting; it works if it elicits the other’s (pupils’) presence.
  6. Buber’s I and Thou is as good a resource as any ever written for the teacher who chooses to base her decision to invite and enable the meeting.
  7. A real danger: No good deed will go unpunished. This meeting is fundamentally subversive to the governmental dispotif and to greedy capitalism and its social manifestations.
About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.