Competition and Bullying

Nine years ago while I was doing a diploma in middle school education. I was sent to two different schools as a student teacher. At the second school I was put with a class that had a serious bullying problem. The problem bothered me so much that to this day I still think about it. This class had six girls and twelve boys. The girls were an incredibly tight-nit group. The boys on the other hand had several groups but by in large got along with each other well enough except for one of them. Every day there would be at least one instance in which one of the boys would say something and then this boy would shout something along the lines of why are you always attacking me. I asked the teacher about this but she declared that that was just how it was. That they had been a class together for years. The situation was like that when she got the class. This puzzled me even more. I felt strongly that I should help this kid but I didn’t know how. For one thing, I didn’t understand what exactly was causing this problem.

After years of reflection I realised that I had all the pieces to solve the puzzle. The problem didn’t lie with the way the boy and the others were interacting. It lay with how all the boys interacted with each other. The boys spoke to him the same way they spoke to the others. This I already knew and at the time was trying to point it out to the boy. He took it as me siding with the others and suggesting it was his own fault. This hadn’t been my intention. The question I didn’t ask at the time was why the boys talked to each other that way in the first place and why it was triggering this boy in such a way.

While I was there I taught the class about Japanese sports days. They are quite different to Australian sports days. While there are individual events the majority of the activities are based around co-operation. How effective the group can work together as a team determines if they can win or not. I taught two events to that class. One was called the caterpillar race. The idea behind this race is that contestants feet are tied together. Like the image below. I divided the class into a girls group and two boys groups. The girls won the race easily. The two boys groups couldn’t get more than a metre before breaking the rope.

Image result for caterpillar race

The next activity was the typhoon game. In this game three people hold a bamboo pole and run together in a straight line. When they get to a witches hat they have to go around in clockwise. They then have to run to the next witches hat and run counter clockwise. After that they return to the rest of the group where the run the bamboo pole under the others legs and then over their heads. Again the girls easily won this race. The boys were barely able to do it. They had the same problem that they had when they did the caterpillar race. They couldn’t work together. In both instances the fastest runner dictated the pace preventing the group from being able to keep up causing them to fail.

This activity highlights exactly what was wrong with that class and why that one kid was so isolated and hated. That class was highly competitive. Every boy considered himself to be the best. The downside to such an atmosphere is that they all wanted to prove that they were the best. This led to a culture of criticism and ego. The boys would say to each other “I’m better than you, you can’t do …” the typical response was much the same thing. “No, I’m better because you can’t do …” So when the one boy who wasn’t competitive said “Why are you always criticizing me?” he wasn’t wrong. The interesting thing about the situation is that the boys didn’t understand that they were criticizing him. They thought, “but I say the same thing to everyone else.” The teacher was also highly competitive and so she couldn’t see what the problem was either. She inevitably sided with the boys because they were exhibited behaviour she valued.

My conclusion is that this boy experienced years of bullying because of a system failure. The system prized competition over everything else to the point that those that weren’t competitive suffered. There was no actual bully in this situation. It was far worse. The entire society was against him unintentionally.

What would I have done differently? It’s hard to know. I don’t have a clear answer but I do know the fundamental problem was a society so competitive it couldn’t understand how working together could give you a competitive advantage.  If I had a year with them I would have constantly used group activities like the ones mentioned but also pushed group activities that rely on the group using their collective skills to succeed.


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