Jonathan Taylor – Headmaster of Bootham School – addresses the issue of bullying in the school’s Morning Meeting during National Anti-bullying Week.
I can still remember his name. McGladdery. That was the kind of school I went to. I was Taylor, and he was McGladdery. McGladdery wasn’t kind to me. I had to avoid him on my walk to school: I rushed ahead, or I dawdled behind. I dodged down the back streets. I can’t remember anything specific about what McGladdery did, but I remember that he made my life miserable.
McGladdery was a bully.
In the scale of things, this hasn’t turned out to be life threatening, but every act of bullying is a serious matter.
What is bullying? It’s not about getting angry, or having a row with someone. It isn’t about the fact that there are conflicts in life. Bullying is repeated behaviour intended to hurt someone physically, or emotionally; it frequently picks on random specifics like race, or gender, or sexual orientation. It happens through physical assault, through cold-shouldering and exclusion, through name calling, making threats or through cyber-bullying.
Bullying in schools is insidious and very hard to resolve: well-meaning strategies such as circle-time and restorative justice don’t always work. Children and teenagers can be very unkind. We will all know examples. Bullying happens in all schools and all groups, from time to time, and schools which deny that are mistaken.
Fortunately, bullying is relatively rare at Bootham, and indeed we find every year students coming to us to escape the bullies they suffered at a previous school. Most of them thrive when they are with us. Why might that be?
George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, wrote in 1653 that ‘our purpose in life is to walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone’. If we live up to that, we will be upholding our friends and acquaintances, not wanting to belittle them. We appreciate that every one of us is unique and irreplaceable. We all have particular qualities, so we are not here to be laughed at. We are empowered ourselves by that interpretation of our purpose in the world.
But that positive outlook will only take root if there’s a collective understanding of the ethos: if an institution or a business encourages a particular attitude through its management style, or its leadership, then that culture will permeate the organisation. We know that our ethos is only as effective as the promise of each one of us – the Head, the teachers, the support staff, students in positions of leadership or seniority or influence – to uphold it in our daily lives. We take that responsibility very seriously. And through our guardianship, and modelling of good behaviour, the ethos is renewed for each generation.
At its best, this mixture of the individual identity and the collective experience will exclude bullying altogether. Even a McGladdery will want to celebrate his unique manifestation of goodness, and rediscover his own, complete name.