Being A Positive Influence
Towards the start of each new academic year, I give an assembly to the whole school on the subject of bullying. Regrettably, bullying is always a possibility whenever a large group of young people are together, and as an entire school community, we need to be aware of the risk and be determined to stamp it out wherever it raises its ugly head.
I know that all of our pupils are decent young men, who understand the difference between right and wrong. However, boys can be led into uncharacteristic behaviour when part of a group, and this explains why, despite the upbringing we have given them, occasionally they can let us down. I have written in my blog about this subject before, but it is almost always ‘banter’ that causes such problems when men/boys are involved. There is nothing wrong with banter per se – I dare say that many of the fathers reading this blog enjoy banter with their friends and sons; I know I do. However, young boys can find it difficult to understand when a joke has been stretched too far, and our challenge is to train them to consider the perspective of the object of the banter. My maxim on this subject, which I repeated in Thursday morning’s assembly is ‘Banter is only banter when both sides find it funny’. I emphasised to the boys that they must be determined to speak up, whether as a victim or if they are witnesses to bullying behaviour. The only wrong thing to do with bullying is to ignore it, because unchallenged it festers and spreads.
I don’t like to dwell on bullying excessively in such assemblies. It is better to focus on positive behaviours, and for boys to consider what they can do or say in their interactions with their peers to make the School a more friendly and accepting community. My address to the boys therefore moved onto the issue of how we support our friends. As adults, we know that when we are asked about our lives and our feelings, we feel valued. There is little more tedious than someone who merely tells us about how wonderful their own holidays or children are. This form of social chit-chat doesn’t come easily to younger boys, as they have not yet learned the unwritten rules of social interaction. Sometimes it’s just a question of embarrassment: they don’t know what to say so instead they start a conversation with a mild ‘banterous’ insult about Leicester City’s defeat or the poor test result obtained the previous day. After many years of reflection, I’m convinced that we actually have to teach teenage boys the sort of pleasant questions with which one might open a conversation. They need to realise that there’s nothing wrong with actually complimenting a friend or, God forbid, a parent, and that it is very pleasant to be on the receiving end!
Thankfully, boys all show a marked improvement in their social sensitivity as they move up the school, and I have lost count of the number of times that visitors to the Grammar School have complimented me on the conversational maturity of the (largely) Sixth Formers they have met. Therefore the concern of Senior Prefects I met earlier this week was rather different. They wanted advice on how to help friends who express vulnerability and unhappiness in their complex lives, and I therefore decided to address this topic in the same assembly.
I have explored in previous blogs the mental health challenges faced by young people. Although the media might want to persuade us that the situation is getting worse (you may have seen the recent statistic that 22% of teenage girls have self-harmed in the past year), one major positive is that young people are now more willing to talk about their doubts and fears. Indeed, they are more prepared than ever before to confide in their friends. Although a positive step, my Prefects were rightly asking for advice over how to help their friends in need.
Any advice needs to be simple and, having consulted Mrs Foster, our Deputy Head Pastoral, we resolved on two aspects. Our first piece of advice was to listen; something that doesn’t necessarily come easily to men. When somebody tells us about a problem, our first reaction is often to try and solve it. I remember, when I was newly-married, that my wife gave me a copy of ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’ and the most important insight I drew from this book was how irritating it was when I listened to her complaints about her colleagues and tried to advise her on what to do. I told the boys that they shouldn’t focus on solving a friend’s problem. The important thing is to listen and perhaps ask some questions to help understand what is going on in his mind. Just by listening and empathising, we are helping. The friend is benefiting from having the opportunity to articulate and thereby better understand his emotions.
The second piece of advice concerned confidentiality. Although it is perfectly acceptable for a student to keep a conversation to himself if he doesn’t think that the situation is particularly serious, if a friend reveals something worrying, it would be foolish to bear the burden of that knowledge alone. Teachers are never allowed to offer a pupil confidentiality, because if they are told something that suggests a child is at risk, they have a legal responsibility to report it to our Designated Safeguarding Lead (Mrs Foster). I emphasised that it should be the same for a pupil. If he feared that a friend was in danger of harming himself, he would have to report it to a teacher. Similarly, if your son ever tells you about his concerns for the wellbeing of a fellow pupil, please report it immediately to us.
Naturally, I am sure that the year ahead will be full of positive experiences for your son. This is the case for the vast majority of LGS boys! However, I know that boys often speak about what they hear in School Assembly, and I hope that this summary will enable us to present a united front if your son is ever in this position.