A Bullying Lesson from an Inspiring Teacher: Character Is Destiny

This article was originally published on October 30, 2017. In it, education leader Bill Jackson recounts a lesson about character he has never forgotten.

I don’t remember much of 6th grade other than the day Mr. Kastroll cancelled our regular classes and taught an impromptu lesson on character. No math that day. No art or PE. Just lecture, discussion, reflection, and writing on a choice we had made.  

Early that morning a 5th-grade girl had been physically bullied by another 5th grader. A 5th-grade matter, you might say, but the problem was that many of us in the 6th grade had seen the incident—and we had done nothing about it.  

The girl who had been bullied was injured and upset. Mr. Kastroll was livid.  

How could we possibly have seen this and done nothing, he wanted to know. He didn’t ask us this question just once or twice and then let the matter slide. As I recall it, he lectured us for more than an hour about our individual and collective failure.  

I also recall that it didn’t feel like a lecture in the traditional sense. The talk he gave us, along with the reflective writing and discussions we did, felt more like a punch in the gut.  

Mr. Kastroll wanted us to see that moment as a test of character that we had failed. He wanted us to know that failing to act in the face of injustice perpetrated by others is itself an injustice. We were to think of ourselves as defenders of justice and kindness and safety on our school campus, he told us. Inaction in the face of serious challenges to those norms was hardly better than direct violations of the norms.  

I’ve never forgotten this lesson, even if I haven’t always lived up to it.  

I think of character as “values made manifest” through human behavior. On the one hand, we hold in our hearts certain aspirations for our behavior. We may aim to be kind, just, and reverent. But how do we bring these aspirations to life through our actions? When other people aren’t watching or when there is a significant price to be paid, what are we really committed to doing?  

An old cliché teaches us that character is something more “caught” than taught. From a young age, children are watching their parents and peers for clues about how to behave. They’re absorbing the norms of the community—the virtues and values that that community prizes above all others. 

Another old cliché is also true: Character is destiny. There is no more important focus for teachers and parents than character formation.  

So ask yourself: what are the norms of my community? Are they what I and others want them to be? And how should the adults who care for students and children collaborate to help them internalize the norms to which we’re deeply committed? 

Bill Jackson founded GreatSchools.org, and now leads RaiseReadyKids.com to help parents of children before they reach school age.

A Status Expert Tackles Bullying

It seems that we should be more than a little worried about bullying in American schools. In 2009 American Medical Association declared it an epidemic and defined it as:

. . . encompassing physical aggression (hitting, pushing, punching, or kicking); verbal harassment (threatening, teasing, name calling, or making faces or dirty gestures); and indirect or relational mistreatment (ignoring someone or excluding him or her on purpose). Daring a person to perform a dangerous, illegal, or inappropriate action under the threat of losing approval among the members of a group is also considered a form of bullying. What is understood as bullying varies according to human developmental stages and cultures.

Attempts to combat the bullying epidemic via zero-tolerance policies seem less than successful. In 2008 an American Psychological Association task force reported that 20 years of zero-tolerance policies show very little evidence of success. It would seem, then, that we are locked into a continuing social cycle.

Or perhaps we shouldn’t be so worried. In 2013, a Department of Education statistical report revealed that bullying had decreased 27 percent since 2011, with one in five teenagers then reporting being bullied in some way. A 2016 National Public Radio report observed of this report that “the most common [bullying] experiences reported were students being ‘made fun of, called names, or insulted’ (13 percent), and being the ‘subject of rumors’ (also 13 percent).

Cyber-bullying  was also found to be much less prevalent than also might be believed.  Approximately one student in 12 reported online bullying ranging from “hurtful information” to “purposeful exclusion from the online community.”

It might be tempting to regard the concern over bullying as simply a wave of media-generated hysteria, reflecting the concerns of adults over a coarsening culture. But as sociologist and Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture senior fellow Murray Milner explains, “Bullies have always been a problem. Part of growing up is learning to deal with them. But that does not mean that young people should be without assistance in [dealing with them].”

Just this brief survey of bullying reveals, if nothing else, that it is both a topic of extraordinary sensitivity, and one to which many separate disciplines can contribute understanding. Educators, artists, psychologists, technological experts, and even criminologists all contribute to defining the problem and offering solutions. But, given what we know about the role of culture in character formation, what assistance can we offer to young people in our era of hyperconnectivity and heightened bullying awareness?

First, recognize that “the old method of addressing bullying with a student assembly at the beginning of the school year just isn’t enough.” This method is based on an approach to culture change in which ideas and information are the most important motivation for and vehicle of change. However, lasting cultural change won’t emerge from merely transmitting information, however dramatic the means of transmission might be. The assembly might be a necessary first step, but it is only a first step.

Second, identify the social context within which bullying occurs. Often, it occurs through the exercise of what Milner defines as status power, used within status groups.

As he explains, status power is distinct from economic or physical power. For example, a teenager might know a lot about punk bands, but will not be accepted by other local punks if he wears khakis and a crucifix. Milner argues that high school, a social system imposed by adults on teenagers, has resulted in teens finding ways to create their own structure of status groups—what they, and we, call crowds and cliques.

Teachers and staff oversee teenagers in high school, but not as intensively as parents and other caregivers do in the home. In fact, contemporary teenagers have much more autonomy in high school than earlier cohorts. But, like earlier cohorts, they still have very little economic and political power. “In one realm, however, their power is supreme: They control the evaluations of one another.” Teenagers can be mean, a meanness often leading to bullying. For status to work, status groups must be “relatively inexpansible.” If one person moves in, another must move out; to stay on top, you must keep others down. Such social structures provide fertile soil in which bullying can flourish.

Thus, third, simultaneously give adults in schools greater knowledge, and confuse status groupings. Milner observes that respondents often report that teachers are oblivious to all forms of harassment and intimidation below the level of open violence. Why? Milner suggests that this is because our schools are so large that adults cannot reasonably cultivate deep knowledge. In small groups of students, however, staff and teachers can develop knowledge of not just names, but personalities. Moreover, in small schools it is more difficult for students to form status sub-groups.

In addition, Milner’s findings suggest the recent interest in “microschools” could be warranted as a means of enabling “adults to maintain a ‘caring watchfulness’ over all aspects of a young person’s maturation.”

Fourth, allocate more authority to adults in school settings, so that they have the resources needed to de-escalate bullying before it becomes psychologically or physically harmful. To an outsider observing the social structure of schools, it is surprising how little effective authority or sanction an adult can draw upon when bullying is observed. How might concerned parents and the broader community align with school leaders, teachers, and students to grant adults appropriate “additional positive and negative sanctions?”

For “if we expect teachers [and other adults in schools] to take more responsibility and better exercise the responsibility they have, they have to be given more effective power.”

Finally, the best anti-bullying program is a devotion to forming the moral lives of students in ways that allow them and their peers to flourish. As Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead advocates, “rather than focus on punishing the perpetrator and preventing contact between the ‘bully’ and the ‘victim,’ let’s focus on teaching positive social behaviors such as respect, compassion, and kindness.” We might also include courage among such behaviors, as the virtue that turns bystanders into what one expert terms upstanders—the people who intervene in something wrong to do what is right.

Is non-abuse what “good moral character” means?

It would seem that our public standards of “good moral character” are too low.

That’s the unavoidable conclusion that comes when you read the “Affidavit of Good Moral Character,” a document produced by the Florida Department of Children and Families. It’s required by the State of Florida that those who want to work with children “affirm and attest under penalty of perjury that [they] meet the moral character requirements for employment . . .”

What are these “moral character requirements”?

That applicants:

. . . have not been arrested with disposition pending or found guilty of, regardless of adjudication, or entered a plea of nolo contender or guilty to or have been adjudicated delinquent and the record has not been sealed or expunged for, any offense prohibited under any of the following provisions of the Florida Statutes . . .

In other words, that they have never been found guilty of or are currently charged with violating Florida laws.

Which laws? Well, first, every possible law relating to “sexual misconduct” with patients, the mentally ill, or children (ranging from rape to voyeurism); abuse; murder; manslaughter; kidnapping; assault “if the offense was a felony” or “if the victim of offense was a minor”; burglary; theft; “fraudulent sale of controlled substances”; and a few other odds and ends.

It’s a moment like this that you begin to realize how perverted our definition of “good moral character” has become. Somehow that term has been used to title a document that would be better called “Affidavit of Legal Conduct.”

It’s a classic example of what the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down.” Moynihan (who was not only a senator but a PhD in History) was using a theory of the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim had suggested in 1895 that, first, crime and deviance were normal throughout human history and human society. However, second, there was a limit to the deviance any community can “afford to recognize,” and that communities traditionally exert social control to contain that deviancy. Moynihan suggested that “over the past generation . . . the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.”

In the case of the State of Florida, where “good moral character” might once have meant being kind, loving, courageous, merciful, and wise—all for the benefit of the children under the person’s care—it now means that one hasn’t forced a child to have sex.

Nor is Florida alone in defining character down. The Immigration Learning Center explains to potential U.S. citizens that “good moral character” is what you must maintain during your five years before filing for citizenship. And as in Florida, good moral character is defined as obeying certain laws. They helpfully explain that “people who have been convicted of murder at any time cannot become U.S. citizens”—murder seems to exceed the statue of character limitations that otherwise applies.

After reading such bland, boring legalese, it no longer seems mysterious why everyone is in favor of character, but no one can seem to define it. Florida and the Immigration Learning Center, with the full force of government behind them, define character as simply not breaking the law—including those against the most awful violations in this or any other culture.

And it recalls the words of James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character, published seventeen years ago, but—as such evidence proves—even more relevant today. He begins the book with a “Postmortem” for character, and writes “. . . character in America has not died a natural death. There has been an ironic and unintended complicity among the very people who have taken on the task of being its guardians and promoters.”

Seventeen years later, that complicity continues.