Banishing Bullying: Ten Disciplines of a Learning Leader

Late in the fall two middle school teachers came to my office with a dilemma: “We don’t want to be guilty of grade inflation, but the grading system isn’t fair. Sara, for instance, works really hard. She always does her homework and participates in class. She is actually a great student, but she is math-phobic. She keeps failing her tests. We don’t know what to do.”

I asked, “Well, you say she is a great student. What does that look like? What does ‘participates in class’ look like?”

“She’s just great at working with others.”

“Yes, but what does that look like? If we can describe it we can measure it, if we can measure it, we can grade it.”

“Well, she builds on other people’s ideas…”

“…and she asks good questions, and well, it’s her attitude…”

“But what does a great attitude look like?”

It was a great conversation, and several faculty meetings later we had a new report card. We decided to give two grades—one for “Learning,” another for “Mastery”—and average them. Sara might get “F” in mastery, “A” in learning, and a “C” for the course. To be rigorous we picked ten observable behaviors and named them “Disciplines of a Learner:”

1.     Asks questions

2.     Builds on other people’s ideas

3.     Uses mistakes as learning opportunities

4.     Takes criticism constructively

5.     Speaks up

6.     Welcomes a challenge

7.     Takes risks

8.     Listens with an openness to change

9.     Perseveres in tasks

10.  Knows when to lead and when to follow.

Graded on a four point scale of  4=consistently, 3=often, 2=sometimes, 1=rarely, students could set goals to improve their learning.

Problem solved. And of course, Sara started getting B’s with no grade inflation, because she could see that her learning, not her intelligence, mattered. (And as Carol Dweck would predict, her intelligence actually grew.) The high schools loved the transcript because they were given more information about what lay behind a B- or a C+. They began reporting back that they loved our graduates because they were leaders. When students felt they could control their own progress toward success, the whole middle school took another giant step toward being a learning community.

What does this have to do with bullying? People’s behavior is mostly a function of their social context (Lee Ross), and bullying is no exception. If there are only a few narrow measures of success, then winning at the game of school looks hopeless for some, and they take other paths–some that are destructive.

In “Bully-Proofing Kids” Michele Borba details about 60 things that parents can do to combat bullying. But these are coping mechanisms. To banish bullying from schools we have to change the culture, and to change the culture, we have to measure what matters. People don’t bully when they are practiced at speaking up, asking questions, making a difference to others, pursuing goals that are meaningful to them, solving problems, resolving conflicts, making mistakes, learning and leading. When kids are on a meaningful mission bullying just doesn’t enter in—conflict yes, but bullying, no. When a classmate falters and gets mean, there are others who stand strong and lead him/her back to better ways.

With a report card that measures only mastery, perhaps with “citizenship” almost as a footnote, will the students tend to practice the behaviors of good citizenship? We can teach values till our faces get red, but students are mainly focused on learning how to play the game. Therefore, we must redesign the game to get the results we want. Aligning elements of culture to support leading and learning produces not just higher academic achievement, but the kind of workers, citizens and neighbors our world needs.

People need to feel they have value; when that prospect looks bleak, they (and those close to them) are at risk.

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3 thoughts on “Banishing Bullying: Ten Disciplines of a Learning Leader

  1. I really wish I could have seen you as a principal in action! I love your leadership style because instead of telling others what to do, you ask great questions and inspire collaboration. They say a leader’s attitude trickles down, and I can see how your style would have brought out the best in everyone around you, including the students. I especially love the 10 disciplines, and what a great way to have students feel they’re more than just numbers.

    People seem to be constantly bashing teachers, when the entire tone of any given school is set by its administrators. It’s time to shift the focus to reexamine how principals and superintendents are educated and hired.

    Anyway, while I agree that the tone of a school can certainly minimize bullying, I think it’s hard to eliminate completely, especially during the middle school years. Hormones are raging, and young teens start to test their independence at home and school. Plus, when a child has a difficult home life, it’s not always easy to keep emotions or behavior in check at school. Educators often have to handle unexpected and inappropriate behavior because students are just learning how to function on their own, and handle responsibilities they may not have taken on before.

    Middle school is often the time when recess is taken away, and students don’t have any time to “shake off” their anxiety or frustration. Sitting most of the day is unnatural, especially when there is no breathing room built in. Did your middle school have the typical bell schedule, starting very early in the morning?

    Well, like I said, I wish I could have seen you in action in that middle school. I can see why such a setting would minimize bullying, and bring out the best in students overall. Great principals and teachers can have profound and lasting effects on students.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. This is wonderful. I am a student teacher and am working on a presentation about inclusive classrooms for a student teaching conference. Part of this is discussing how we need to move beyond assessment of learning (mastery) and seeing how the student performs with other measures of assessment, such as the ones that you have listed above.

  3. Here’s my summary comment, used as a signature quote on my emails currently:
    “Leading is building collaborative energy, listening, asking questions, discerning and helping a group move forward with a purposeful, shared vision.”

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