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What a teacher’s response to bullying teaches kids about their worth

I’m a chubby, ginger, red-faced, nine-year-old and I’m being bullied by a girl in my class. She’s one year older than me. We’re such a small primary school that we have three years in the same class. My sister and I have been moved to this school because I was bullied in my last school too. I guess my quiet nature and inability to stick up for myself makes me an easy target for bullies.

After a while, my mum takes me to the headteacher about the ongoing bullying. He’s the same man who teaches my class. What response do you imagine we’d get from this experienced headteacher? It wasn’t the one we’d hoped for. You know what he tells us about the girl with the cruel words? “Well, she is from a privileged background…” as if that’s ok!

Those words have stuck with me. And the message I received that day, I carried into adulthood. Because what those words told me was that I was ‘less than’ other people. That it’s okay for someone who happens to be more privileged and powerful than me to treat me as they choose to. It must be wrong for me to expect more if my teacher who I looked up to would allow this, right?

I don’t remember ever speaking up about bullying after that. Who am I to ask for help? Over many years, I endured crap treatment from some of my peers, my so-called friends and colleagues, because I believed I was ‘less than’ them and I felt like I didn’t have the right to speak up for myself. In fact, everyone was ‘more than’ me in my eyes. I could barely even recognise the hurtful words, laughter, shoving and tripping as bullying or wrong. I just felt it was true and I deserved it. I kept quiet and small, hoping to minimise it.

Fast forward to more recent times and I’m updating my career history on my LinkedIn profile when this message pops up from my old headteacher: “Well done Hayley! You’ve come a long way!” I immediately feel sick to my stomach. It’s like I’m taken back to being that frightened little girl desperate for kindness. And then I feel anger bubbling inside me.

Yes, it is true that I have come a long way. I have climbed out of a deep, dark hole to get to where I am today. There were people who threw rocks and mud at me, knocking me to the floor and burying me alive. But there were also some truly wonderful souls who I am grateful to have met in my time, who have reached down into that hole whispering words of encouragement as they passed me tools and took my hand, guiding me towards the light.

My headteacher threw mud at me. I’d like to extend the most generous interpretation of his behaviour and say he didn’t do this intentionally or fully understand the impact his words and decision to not intervene would have. Even so, that mud stuck. I’m still scraping muddy messages from my skin today.

As a wiser me, I realise the significance of the missed opportunity he had to send me a different message. It was not my nine-year-old self’s job to teach herself that she was worthy, good enough and of equal value to her peers, regardless of their status or hers. That was the job of the respected adults in her life. For these important life lessons left untaught, this became my job as an adult. This wisdom left unlearned would have kept me distressed, deep down in that dreadful hole.

While I appreciate recognition of my achievements, I do not want congratulating for an apparent ‘transformation’ of self. It has been slow and painful growth for me to realise that I am not the lowly person I was told I was. I am enough. I have been delicately unravelling the unkind messages and unlearning the flawed beliefs I carried with me, replacing them with lessons of personal value, worthiness and self-compassion.

I believe this is the most incredible achievement for any adult. This is what should be celebrated. If you’re on this path too, please join us in the Quiet Community so we can all walk this path together with support and understanding. Become a member today (it’s free!)

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