When Linda Rhone gathered a group of fifth-grade teachers to talk about bullying, they assumed she meant the kind everyone hears about:
Fights on the playground.
Harassment in hallways.
Threats and insults hurled through cyberspace.
Student vs. student.
But Rhone, then an assistant professor of education at Newman University, wanted the Wichita teachers to explore something else: how teachers themselves might perpetuate bullying behavior.
“We want to diminish the whole culture of bullying because we know that children have to learn that from somewhere,” said Rhone, now a member of the teaching faculty at Southwestern College in Winfield.
“If they’re learning it at home and learning it at school, then we can’t expect them to operate any differently.”
Rhone’s teacher inquiry group – an 18-month project funded by grants from the Kansas Health Foundation and the Gerber Institute for Catholic Studies and conducted in partnership with the Wichita school district – delved into the sometimes controversial topic of “cultural bullying,” and the need for teachers to understand and value students from diverse backgrounds.
“The vast majority of the teachers in our classrooms across the country are white, middle-class and female,” Rhone said. “The faces of the students – they’re not white and middle-class.
“They are racially, ethnically, linguistically and in many other ways diverse, and they’re put into classrooms with teachers who have had little exposure to them. … So we began by sort of looking in a mirror and asking ourselves, ‘Might I be perpetuating bullying?’ ”
As part of the project, teachers studied the work of late Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, whose landmark work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” has been at the center of ethnic-studies debates in Arizona and elsewhere.
While some critics call Freire’s work “radical separatism,” Rhone says it helps teachers learn to engage students, provide meaningful experiences and empower them “to act on the injustices in their lives.”
The idea: If teachers can be more open and accepting of different cultures and backgrounds, their students will be more open and accepting of classmates and others.
Kim Burkhalter, director of equity and accountability for Wichita schools, said the district supported Rhone’s project because it fit with its goals for cultural proficiency.
“When we have that self-reflection, it raises important questions: What am I modeling in my teaching … as it relates to this whole notion of bullying?” Burkhalter said. “The dialogue with teachers and students was just mind-blowing.”
Scott Torline, a teacher at Buckner Performing Arts Magnet Elementary who participated in the teacher study group, said that at first, “I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into.”
Over time, Torline said, he started to see how traditional systems and practices in schools, such as tiered reading groups, can lower kids’ confidence and self-worth.
“A definite a-ha moment was the (skills-based) groups,” Torline said. “These kids who are put in the lower group again and again. … I think it perpetuates that lack of self-esteem (because) they never think they’re going to get any better.
“We’re not saying, ‘You’re not smart,’ but in a way, that’s what they see.”
Schools don’t need to do away with skill-based groups, Torline added. But “the kids need to understand that because you’re not good in one subject or area, you have talents in other subjects or other areas,” he said. “And I’m going to do my best to bring that out.”
Veronica Salas, a teacher at Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet, said she learned through Rhone’s project that “most teaching is geared toward the dominant culture” and that teachers seldom realize it.
For instance, lessons on African-American history may happen only around Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month, she said. Teachers sometimes change the subject rather than delve into topics of race and ethnicity that might make them uncomfortable.
“Through this project, I’ve been able to open myself up to the students and allowed them to open themselves up,” said Salas, who was born in Newton to Mexican parents.
“We talk about the injustices that happen and the things that might still continue to happen.”
During a recent lesson in her language arts class, Salas’ students talked about discrimination, integration and historic events such as the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
One student noted how Wichita still seems somewhat segregated, with black people living in certain parts of town, Hispanic and Asian immigrants in others.
“Sometimes there are things that go under the rug, unsaid, but students want to talk about them,” Salas said later.
“When you talk about it, you can talk about how, historically, there are reasons why things are the way they are and how that’s changing. … They can think critically about their place in the world.”
Rhone’s project involved only six fifth-grade teachers, but she has presented videos and materials from the group at conferences on teaching diversity and social justice.
“If we don’t have these kinds of discussions, we set our teachers up for failure,” she said. “We have only a piece (of research) here, but I think it’s a piece that’s really important and that gave us some important information.”