the bystander

The Bystander

This being a month that focuses on the subject of bullying, I wanted to address a sometimes forgotten role in a bullying situation: the bystander.  In speaking with a group of middle schoolers recently, I was reminded by them of some of the reasons they do not get involved in bullying situations:  worries about becoming the next target, not being believed, being criticized by other peers for tattling, not trusting adults to take care of the situation properly, or lacking inner courage.  Listening to their personal stories touched me deeply.

More classroom emphasis on bullying through role playing could provide students with alternative actions and language to use when witnessing a bullying situation.  Drama provides the perfect “practice” opportunity through dialogue and decision making.  Drama also gives students a chance to discuss the bystander role in a group/ensemble situation where they learn what others think and how they might support each other.  Peer learning is powerful in drama.

Another opportunity to consider the importance of the bystander is to look at age appropriate literature and film.  In many stories, we might refer to the antagonist as a bully and the protagonist as a target.  Instead of looking at the main characters, focus on the “bystanders,” those characters that support the protagonist and antagonist.  Who gets involved?  At what risk?  Why do they get involved?  How do they support either side?  What character traits do they exhibit?  Do they change and in what way? 

One example is Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger.  The father in the story bullies people with his magic.  The people in the town stand up to him.  They are bystanders that take action.  The father’s son is also a bystander who ultimately helps his father use his magic for good.  The bystander aspect of this story is often ignored in end-of-lesson reflection.  I recommend finding good stories with bystander action or inaction that you would like to address and allow that to lead to deep discussions about the choices bystanders make.

Also, don’t ignore history.  When studying historical moments and the people involved, take the time to go deeper in discussion.  Focus on the role of bystanders who ultimately came forward in those moments and made a difference.  Again, ask the same questions:  Who gets involved?  At what risk?  Etc.

I have included two poems I wrote for drama lessons that address the different roles in a bullying situation.  Both of the included poems focus on the bystander role.  Groups of students were given a poem and asked to create a drama answering the same questions as above through their devised/improvised story.  These dramas became great conversation starters in which I learned more about student thinking than I ever did in general classroom discussions on bullying. 

Let me know how they work for you.

What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.
Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor

by Karen Erickson

Karen Erickson

What to Do? 

by Karen L. Erickson


I see the boy

Who forces Frank down.

His head hits hard

Upon the ground.

What should I do?

I don’t know what to say.

Should I help?

Or should I run away?

Who Am I?

by Karen L. Erickson


I thought I was a tattler

When I went to get assistance

For the new boy being pushed.

This was the second instance.

The boy was safe.

The teacher told me I did right.

Someone could have been extremely hurt

If there had been a fight.

So now I’m thinking,

Tattling and telling aren’t the same.

With telling you keep others safe,

Protecting them from pain.