Three years ago, Scott, a student in my ninth-grade world history class at Branford High School, decided that it was time to share his story with his peers. He told them of the emotional, verbal, and physical abuse he suffered due to his weight and the allegations that he was gay. Scott had no friends and he hated school.
But the other students in my class did not mock him. They listened and were empathic. And it was only the second week of school.
How did we create such an open and trusting environment?
Schools can offer school-wide anti-bullying programs, but the classroom is the front line. From the first day of class, I tell my students that the classroom environment is in their hands, but that I demand respect and trust from everyone. The message is constant and endless. Students learn to appreciate their individual importance from day one. We apologize to each other. We share stories. We take risks. We laugh. We know each other’s pain. We know acceptance.
I needed a tool to assist my students in changing unacceptable behavior while still having fun and saving face, so I created the Decorum Book. Students are in charge of monitoring offensive remarks or behavior and recording it in this book. The offending student must apologize to the class and serve 20 or 40 seconds with me after school. Why a punishment of just seconds? It is much more positive to have a student sprint to my class, sit for 20 seconds, and then sprint to the bus rather than spend an angry and defensive half hour with me. They are judged by their peers and responsibly serve their time.
This environment is a safe place with high expectations. Trust in the classroom often turns young adolescents into advocates for change. Using my class as a springboard, Scott became involved with Branford’s Cultural Diversity Club and soon found himself on stage addressing the entire school during a student presentation on the effects of bullying. His message was profound and respected. Today he can look back at starring roles in many stage productions and a myriad of close friends. Earlier this school year, I watched with pride as Scott, now a senior, sang a solo in a musical performance for Branford’s whole student body. He received a standing ovation.