Schools have been organizing assemblies to address bullying, substance abuse, and a variety of other student issues for as long as I can remember. I definitely remember sitting through them during middle school in particular, and – unfortunately – tuning out because I just didn’t feel like I could connect with the speaker. When it came to the assemblies about bullying, I thought to myself, “yes, we all realize that it’s wrong to be mean to others, but nothing really is going to change at my school, and so why even bother?” I admit that was quite a defeatist mentality, but I’ll blame it in large part on my disillusioned, angst-ridden adolescent self.
That said, I also remember a couple of more inspirational speakers who gave presentations at my schools – and while they weren’t at all about bullying, I did find them compelling, hopeful, motivating, and even instructive. And I didn’t feel like I was being preached or lectured to. That showed me I could be reached – it just really seemed to depend on the quality of the content, the tone of the message, the level at which I was spoken to, and the relatability of what was conveyed. The bottom line is that there is value in assembly programs, but their selection and implementation requires significant consideration and forethought.
The Assembly as a Bullying Solution
Since schools know that bullying and cyberbullying is a problem on their campus and want to do something about it, scheduling an assembly is often the very first idea that comes to their mind. It makes sense, because they seem to be an easy-to-implement solution. Typically, a school has a budget, they find a speaker (or just have one of their staff members do it), they schedule the day and time, and they bring that person in to do his/her thing in the auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria. This takes a lot less time and effort than all that is actually needed to make a true difference. But at least it is something.
To be sure, there are a ton of options available for schools in this space. Just do a Google search for “bullying assembly” or “cyberbullying assembly,” and you’ll find pages and pages of people, many of whom are self-described “experts” (perhaps they are, I have no idea). Many educators also receive unsolicited emails from speakers, encouraging them to check out their web sites and skillsets, and consider hiring them to talk to their students. The speakers’ web sites describe what makes their particular talks engaging, interactive, and motivating, and most provide testimonials highlighting the benefit the assemblies provided to the school and attendant students. All of this is good. Really good. There is definitely a need to reach kids with a gripping and powerful message that cultivates empathy, induces intentional kindness and respect towards one’s peers, and equips them to know exactly what to do if they – or someone they know – is being targeted. And there is definitely a need for many speakers to be out there doing their part to help. However, there are three points which we want to make to help inform your implementation:
1. Assemblies must be used as a single piece of a much broader effort.
While a bullying assembly does have some value, we cannot emphasize strongly enough that a “one and done” strategy will fall short and ring painfully hollow in time – even if it is the most heart-rending or entertaining or memorable or impressive or convicting talk your youth have ever heard in their entire lives. Students need more. Bullying prevention initiatives in schools can have assemblies as part of their programming, but according to the research need more substantive characteristics such as information sent home to parents, requests for parents to attend meetings (so as to get them on board to help educators with the message), instructive role-playing scenarios in the classroom, and efforts that lasted more than one day. Schools need more than a flash-in-the-pan event, even if it is really good. The speaker’s efforts can have great value as a launching pad from which other initiatives can take off. These can include a comprehensive anti-bullying curriculum, peer-to-peer programming, specifically training faculty/staff on how to teach digital civility and how to handle problems that arise, modules on socio-emotional learning, stress management, and conflict resolution, social norming, and building a positive school climate.
2. Consider the impact of the specific content
A school’s good intentions to impact, influence, and inspire their student body may backfire if the speaker or organization is not carefully vetted, and if the message is not carefully designed – with every word measured and every aspect planned and prepped for. For example, in just the last six months one school district has had significant reputational fallout in the community because they brought in a speaker whose interactive exercises may have contributed to excessive vulnerability (and even emotional and psychological pain) by students, and consequently further targeting by bullies, and at least one school district has been sued for indirectly contributing to a teen suicide by hiring a speaker who gave a presentation that may have planted ideas of self-harm as a viable option out of the pain one is experiencing.
3. Take the time to find a great speaker to optimize chances for success
Schools interested in bringing out speakers to conduct student assemblies must demonstrate due diligence and do their background research. This is one of the primary ways to find out if they actually are relatable and uplifting, and if they actually have great content that focuses on the positive, provides real solutions, and can lead to specific follow-up by the school. We suggest that educators reach out to colleagues at other schools for specific recommendations. Feel free to even cold call those you don’t know but who work at schools similar to your own. Feel free to review testimonials, but also know that a speaker’s testimonials may not paint a full picture. As such, we also recommend that you take the time to schedule a call with potential speakers so you can get to know their style, passion, convictions, content areas, and exactly how they will connect with your students.
My next blog will detail what I believe the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do, in order to illuminate what makes a great quality presentation to youth. In addition, Justin and I would love to hear your own thoughts, observations, and experiences in this area, and so feel free to weigh in!