Watching the viral video of school bus monitor Karen Klein being bullied by middle school students, people across the country are angry and outraged -- and looking for someone to blame. Where did these children's lack of respect and empathy for Klein, a 68 year-old grandmother of eight, come from? Therapists and psychologists on the evening news are only too happy to identify the real culprits: The parents.
But I don't think parents are the ones to blame. This incident doesn't demonstrate a lack of good parenting. Instead, it demonstrates a very important missed opportunity by our educational system.
I would bet that had any of those students' parents been present, the children would not have behaved that way toward Klein. I would also bet that those parents are absolutely appalled and surprised by their children's incredibly cruel behavior. Children, after all, behave quite differently when their parents aren't present.
But as every teacher knows, every school is filled with children who influence each other every day. In fact, the research shows that children -- especially adolescent children -- are more influenced by their peers than they are by their parents, especially when their parents aren't present.
Yet there are adults who do have a unique opportunity to positively influence these children.
As Judith Rich Harris points out in her book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, teachers, unlike parents, are in the unique position of leading a large group of children -- not just one or two. A truly skillful teacher can influence that group's boundaries (who is us and who is them) and image (we are a group of scholars). Such a teacher need not influence every single student directly, but so long as she influences either the majority or the socially dominant students, she can shape the culture of that group. And she can do so without controlling it.
I've seen this dynamic in action, because this is what Montessori teachers do. They foster the culture of the children to be one of peace, respect and scholarship (and this is done throughout the school, not just in one or two classrooms). Once the children own that identity, they maintain it, not the teacher. It's sort of like a positive peer pressure.
Sadly, our public schools don't give their teachers the time or the training to proactively influence the culture of their students. Instead, our teachers are scrambling to pour facts and figures into the children to ensure high test scores that will allow the teachers to keep their jobs. Those with the power to write pink slips simply don't value the culture of the children as much as they value high test scores.
Schools do provide rules for the children, but rules do not teach the values of peace, respect and scholarship. Rules are necessary, but by themselves, they only promote external rewards and punishments and teach children to figure out how not to get caught! They don't encourage children to act as intrinsically self-regulated, respectful and interdependent community members.
We can't blame the parents for Karen Klein's bullying experience. Nor can we blame teachers. But perhaps we can blame a system that is not designed to create a peaceful, respectful community -- a system that values test scores over humanity.