George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Square Peg

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The Square Peg
By Jill Jenkins

          Imagine being in high school, the most socially and emotionally charged period in a person’s life, and all of the other students talk to other students around you, but no one talks to you.  You hear about parties, but you are never invited.  In fact, you are similar to the girl in Janis Ian’s classic hit, “At Seventeen:” 

               “To those of us who knew the pain
                Of valentines that never came
                And those whose names were never called
                When choosing sides for basketball
                It was long ago and far away
                the world was younger than today
                when dreams were all they gave for free
                to ugly duckling girls like me...”
            Teenagers accept only those that fit their perception of the perfect teenage image.  You are the square peg.  You feel loneliness and you wonder if there is something wrong with you because you are different from the others.  Maybe you are different because you have a different religion, a different race, a different skin color, or even a different sexual preference.  Maybe you are different because you aren’t pretty, you aren’t thin, and you can’t afford designer clothing.  Because you are square peg in many schools, you are shunned. Now, you have a good idea of what a child feels when he/she is the victim of bullying.  Isolation is another form of bullying. 

            As a teacher it is sometimes easy to spot the child who verbally abuses other students.  As a teacher, it is sometimes easy to spot the child who physically abuses other students, but as a teacher it is harder to identify students who use the psychological abuse of shunning or isolation to abuse their victims.  Those who abuse others in this way  often  continue to abuse their co-workers by making decisions behind their backs and leaving them out of the loop of communication, ignoring their co-worker and talking behind their co-workers back.  Likewise, these are tactics often used by female students to bully another student.  Social media and the internet create even a larger arena for these bullies to thrive.   The results of this abuse can be devastating to an insecure teenager. 

            Research actually indicates that students who bully often come from home where they are bullied by a parent and their victims are often students with low self-esteem.  In my own family, my father used to taunt and tease us.  He had belittling names for each of us identifying whatever weakness he perceived.  He believed that this behavior made us more resilient to others.  He wanted to toughen us up. My father’s taunting was imitated by my brothers who called me “Pizza Face” because I had acne, “Thunder Thighs” because my legs were not thin, and often smacked my elbow as I ate pie so they could be amused as pie smashed up my nose.  Belittling children does not make them more resilient.  It destroys their self-image.  A child with a strong self-image does not feel the need to taunt and tease others who are weaker and they rarely become the victims of bullying because their healthy self-image makes them a more difficult target for would be aggressors.  In fact, children who are belittled and bullied by a parent often bully other students at school or bully their own children when they grow up. 

            Stopping the cycle of bullying, means we need to educate both parents and children.  Changing both the parents’ and child’s attitude toward bullying and helping to identify what behavior is harmful to others will help stop this behavior at schools.  Knowledge is power.  Not only knowing what behavior is inappropriate and harmful, but getting to know the square pegs is another way to build bridges.  As long as the other person is some unknown stereotype (oh, those Goth students) they will bully them, but getting to know each child as an individual is one way of stopping bullying.  Group work where students do not just select their own friends, but are placed in groups with students who are different from them helps students gain skills in working with all types of people, but it also helps them recognize the similarities between them and those that they perceive as differ.

            Bullying like child abuse is not an easy problem to stop, but as a teacher you need to create an atmosphere of caring, where students feel like they are all members of a community.  You need to identify all types of bullying: physical, verbal and psychological and never tolerate it in your classroom.  Act to educate students and parents about the effects of even social isolation.  Let’s give the square pegs a chance to fit in.

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Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

The "square peg in a round hole" metaphor is a great description for what social isolation can feel like. I think exclusion often gets overlooked in discussions about bullying, even though it can be just as hurtful and damaging for students. The idea of creating an inclusive "community" environment in your classes is so vital for trying to combat this.

I agree that educating parents is an important piece too. No parent wants to believe that their child is a bully; but if we advise parents on how to recognize the signs (that their child is a victim or a perpetrator), we can help them be more aware and able to intervene. The more informed parents are the easier they can work together with teachers and squash instances of bullying before they get out of hand. Indeed, knowledge is power.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

As we establish our classroom routines and expectations at the start of the school year, we need to be clear about how we will treat one another. I actually start by asking my 8th graders to remember that their teachers are humans, too, and that if they greet us when they walk in the door, smile, and even ask how we're doing, that they will help me to establish a caring environment where we treat each other with respect. Of course then I need to reciprocate in how I treat them, and demonstrate what respect and caring look like.

Another way I try to address bullying (or racism, intolerance, etc.) is through our literature and writing. So much of what we read includes these kinds of conflicts, and through our discussions and writing, we are able to talk about why we think people act that way and how we can help those who are victims. History teachers have so many opportunities to do this as well, since history is rife with examples of bullying those who are different.

I'm curious, Jill, how you establish those caring, respectful norms when students work in groups. Do you have specific activities that you have the groups do in order to teach your group expectations? I'm always looking for more resources for helping students work well together.

Jill Jenkins's picture
Jill Jenkins
A retired teacher who likes to share her insight.

Excellent idea Laura. I think your approach to greeting students helps to create a positive atmosphere, but it also teaches children socially acceptable ways to interact with others.

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