Bullying and the Practice of Mindfulness
By Wei Shimin
Bullying – from the perspective of an ex-school teacher
My first year as a school teacher, everyone avoided this girl in my form class. I’d have to admit, she was weird. Her uniform was ill-fitting, her hair looked like she had cut it herself, she was perpetually grumpy, looked down at the floor all the time, and even talked to herself. Her classmates didn’t want her in their groups for projects, much less befriend her. Then the hate notes came, her things would go missing, and this put her in a foul mood. She complained to my more experienced and much older co-form teacher. And naturally, the discipline mistress was called in, the alleged bullies hauled in front of her, together with the presumed victim, and a threatening warning was given to all. They denied everything of course; it was her word against theirs, that was all the evidence there was. Of course, the bullying continued – it went underground and intensified. It is extremely difficult to accuse schoolgirls of bullying in a secondary school. A pull of hair here, hiding of her books there, tearing of pages another day, and verbal curses uttered under the breath. The more the victim complained, the worse the bullying got. Most teachers also fail to do anything beneficial to help the victim. They would assume the role of an authoritative figure and issue threat after threat, not realising that it makes the situation worse. This only serves to entrench the victim as the detestable “other”, and all the more pits “us” against “the other”. All of this happened in the first few months of their Secondary One year in my form class. As a new and struggling teacher, I could barely keep my head above water, and clueless on how to resolve bullying issues. But even then, I could clearly see that what the discipline mistress did was entirely unhelpful.
“Bullying” is not just the actions of a few people; the rest of us who shun the victim or turn a blind eye to what was going on are just as guilty. In the 2016 Japanese anime “A Silent Voice”, a deaf girl transfers to a new schools, and a guy takes the lead to bully her by vandalising her table or throwing her books, and even snatching her hearing aids away. The rest of the class simply watch the acts without interfering, either because they thought of it as entertaining mischief, or they didn’t want to get involved and bring trouble to themselves. Eventually, the deaf girl transferred out as she could not handle the bullying acts and isolation. When the form teacher addressed the class on this, everyone accused just the bully as the single perpetuator, and henceforth started bullying him instead in order to resolve themselves of any wrongdoing.
Back to the example of my form class, so what happened to the girls after that? Well, the victim continued being alienated, even as she continued complaining, and the bullying continued. After a while, the bullying died a natural death as everyone got used to the weird girl, and they got bored of bullying her. By Secondary Three, the weird girl underwent a sudden transformation – she rebonded her hair, wore fitting clothes with the skirt carefully shortened to the minimum length required (as all fashionable schoolgirls would do), wore ankle socks, carried the latest haversack, and traded her geeky spectacles for contact lenses. Personality-wise, she was still as weird as ever, and she still kept to herself. But struck by her metamorphosis, no one dared to disturb her anymore. Perhaps one could also sense that she started to hold herself taller and walk with a strong stride, and gave off that “don’t mess with me” vibe.
Bullying is Psychological
For most part, long-term bullying is hugely psychological in both cause and effect. There are always deeper underlying issues lurking within both the victim and the bullies. In my example, the weird girl came from a traditional family, her mother was a homemaker and had little sense of societal norms. When mother and daughter talked to each other, it was less talking, and more like muttering to themselves, with no sense of communication across to each other. Over time and with the shock of exposure to her peers, the weird girl decided to stand up for herself as a survival tactic. As for one of the bullies, she was frequently missing from both school and home. I talked to both her family and her on several occasions. Her family was blithely unconcerned that she didn’t return home for days on end, let alone miss school. And she herself appeared to have morphed into an adult before her time, and frankly told me that she had “more important things” to settle with her much older friends outside of school.
In the end, it’s all about survival for these teenagers. Having taught in a typical neighbourhood school, and teaching mostly Normal (Academic) classes, many of my students came from poor backgrounds or had single parents or little adult supervision. They felt severely deprived both materially and emotionally from a young age. When they go to school, they might find it hard to keep up academically as no one is around to guide them on their schoolwork, especially with the increasingly high expectations of our curriculum and by teachers. So they feel demoralised in terms of their ability. And they seek to satisfy their sense of “self” by forming their own cliques, and at times showing off their “power” over those who are more vulnerable. It’s the “herd mentality” – everyone wants to be part of the “cool” gang; no one wants to be that ostracised “other”. It’s the human soul fighting to survive by protecting their sense of “self”. When kids grow up in an unhealthy environment, they lack holistic development. Hence, they may suffer from low self-esteem, feel inadequate, and crave affirmation from others in order to feel deserving as a person. Their lack of mental and emotional resilience lead to them falling into stereotyped roles of either the “majority” or the “minority”, and both roles feed off the unhealthy energy in a vicious circle. They may even grow up trapped within the roles as “bully” (needing to lord over others in order to feel in control), or “victim” (always feeling oppressed and even resigned to their fate). As they become adults, the workplace simply becomes an enlarged version of such oppression, and society itself starts to reflect the growing problem of the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the powerful versus the struggling.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Do you believe that all of our varying social status, our financial disparities, our supposed differences in positions and power… all of these are largely controlled by our minds? Our lives could be so dependent on the story that we tell ourselves. It could be an inspiring story of how we turned our lives around, or it could be one of self-defeating despair, and lead us to sink deeper into hopelessness. That is what makes or breaks a person – we hear stories all the time: like that boy who got into gang fights, went in and out of boys’ homes, yet found his purpose later on and went on to study hard and achieve his improbable dream of being an engineer or an entrepreneur and so on. I personally know of a Normal (Technical) student who dreamed of aerospace work, and he did so well in his studies that he could have progressed onto a Polytechnic, but he instead went to study Aerospace Technology in ITE to pursue his passion. Or less dramatically, of my own student, who was condemned as being “stupid” and labelled as having “anger management problems” in school, but went on to finish his GCE ‘N’ Levels, now holding a stable job as a surveyor in the oil and gas industry, and he just invited me to his wedding last month J (August 2017).
Most of us would have had bullying experiences to a certain extent. What determines how some of us stay trapped and remain subject to continual bullying roles? And yet how is it that others are able to shrug it off and bounce back? Even as we enter into the work force, we also have to deal with the politics of hierarchy and relationships. Again, what is it that renders some to rise above the politics, and yet others who sink and drown in it?
We can change our lives by changing the stories we tell ourselves. And to tell a good story, we have to work on our minds. I believe that it is our mental and emotional resilience that enables us to manage all the ups and downs of life. So when a child lacks the healthy development of such resilience due to a number of factors, what can be done to help them as teachers or caregivers? I strongly feel that the consistent practice of mindfulness can greatly help our children. Mindfulness is gaining popularity as the fashionable “zen” way to keep calm and manage stress. This is a fallacy and in fact creates even more unhappiness in the never-ending race for that “zen” that is always just out of reach. Mindfulness is very simple – it is about staying in the present moment, simply being aware of your breathing, or your movement, or even your emotions and state of mind. Mindfulness is about creating space between the ever-changing things that happen around us and within us, and staying grounded to observe the changes without being overwhelmed by them.
For example, I sit on one side of the bus, and it is cooling and I feel comfortable. Then the bus turns the corner and the sun shines onto me, and I feel disturbed. The bus turns yet another corner, and it is shady again and I feel comfortable once more. Do I let myself become happy or displeased by the external factor of the bus turning directions? Do I shift from one seat to another every 5 minutes just to feel comfortable? Mindfulness helps us to be aware that yes the sun feels hot on my skin, but like everything else, this will also change eventually. I can choose to acknowledge the changes as part of my bus journey, and either change positions or stay where I am and accept the changing circumstances. Another example, someone bumps into you and steps on your foot, you yelp in pain. If he had bumped into you by accident, do you still scold him? If he gets angry in return and scolds you back, how would you react then?
Forest School Pedagogy and Mindfulness
In a typical school, the teacher has no time to be patient with every child as she has to manage over 30 kids and stay on task with teaching of the syllabus. She has to be authoritative and instructional, and she frequently intervenes to stop quarrels quickly so that the kids don’t get out-of-hand. Children thus rarely have the opportunities to learn to manage their own emotions, let alone develop empathy for others. They retain an egoistic view of the world around them, and this leads to problems such as bullying, reinforcing their perceptions of “us” against the “other”.
In Forest School, we let the children voice their displeasure directly to each other, as kids are naturally impulsive and they should not suppress their emotions. Usually, when they are given the space to communicate to one another in their own way, they start to recognise that the context of their emotions are sometimes unwarranted, or that things are not always black and white and they learn to see things from their friends’ point of view instead. They also start to acknowledge the sometimes selfish behaviour that they are prone to, and learn to develop empathy for others when they see the detrimental effects of their behaviour. This child-driven learning process takes a much longer time to develop, but it has long-lasting effect as it is not dictated by any adult, and they take responsibility for developing their own behaviour and bonding with their friends. They develop increased awareness about their impulses and effect on others, and hence learn to manage their emotional and mental responses. Basically, it is like being able to take a deep breath and count to 10 before you respond to something that you don’t like. This is the practice of mindfulness. The Forest School setting creates the space for mindfulness to develop, and the natural environment allows the kids to feel more in tune with their body and emotion as well. The best way for children to cultivate mindfulness is to experience it from the adults around them. As parents, teachers and coaches, we have big roles to play with just our mindful presence.