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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hummingbird Bullies

Hummingbird Bullies

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I once met the Sweet Polly Purebread of American education while on a school visit.  As a teacher, she was endearing, inspirational, and humble; she fawned over our team.
We thought, “Wow – This is what K-12 teaching COULD BE,” envisioning the amazing hiring decision made in bringing her on board.
For those who have never seen the classic television cartoon “Underdog,” Sweet Polly Purebread was the innocent and endearing “apple of the eye” of our canine superhero.
As excited our team was to see this teacher share her positive disposition with us, I was surprised later that day to witness from afar her public upbraiding of a student, while walking her class down the hallway.  I guessed that his excessive energy was not fashionable while visitors were in the building – probably one of those situations where kids were admonished within inches of their eyebrows prior to our arrival, and I wasn’t expected to be in that end of the building. 
Darn the luck.
Polly, catching me in her peripheral vision, retorted immediately to a plastic smile and what appeared from a distance to be positive reinforcement toward that same student, much to his disbelief. 
The look on his face said, “What?!?!”

This Sweet Polly Purebread might have been a hummingbird bully.

Hummingbirds frequent our back deck. 
My wife, Wendy and I have two feeders, primarily because of the bullying.  Bullying, you say?  Yep.  Bullying.
All we want is for these beautiful birds to drink from our feeders and of course, to get along, yet despite our efforts at providing more space to eat, we now have twice the bullying. 
This is eerily similar to what exists in K-12 education because our inabilities, at times, to discern what’s really happening in our schools . . . to see the fangs behind the facade.

Hummingbirds appear to be beautiful creatures, hovering above flowers and feeders to extract the nectar upon which they feed.  They are multi-colored, multi-shaped, and universally small and cute, so I never realized until recently that they had another side to their disposition.

Hummingbirds can be nasty with a capital N! 
They can be bullies with a capital B!

More now the rule rather than the exception, these seemingly docile creatures wait for others to visit the feeders.  When one hovers for a drink, another will fly at breakneck speed from a tree line 25 yards or more out, to deliver a “drive-by,” a glancing blow, forcing the smaller bird from the feeder and chasing him or her back to the trees, quite a distance away.
Sometimes, hummingbird bullies even hover under the rails of the deck, lying in wait until others try to feed, then delivering the sidewinding strike, sending them to orbit once again.
I would have never thought that hummingbirds could be bullies – too pretty, too small, too docile, and too unassuming.
Then again, I would never have thought that Sweet Polly Purebread could act that way toward students, when nobody else was watching.

Applied to our positions as school leaders, I would have never thought that the sweet daughter or the kind son of a soccer-playing, dinner-table-eating, church-going, working-class or mid-to-upper-level socioeconomic family involved in the National Honor Society, could be making the life miserable for any of our other students. 
I have found that at times, I was so wrong.
Hummingbird bullies are not what they appear. 
They could be in our advanced classes.  They might be in the locker room, plying their trade before the coach arrives.  They might be at the bus stops when parents aren’t around, or even in student clubs and organizations.  They might be on staff.
It becomes particularly tough to identify hummingbird bullying, as oftentimes, those who we perceive as kind and sweet (because they say nice things to us as other students walk by and ignore us) are operating in stealth, just around the next corner. 
Are hummingbird bullies smarter than we? 
I was reminded of this in an episode of the television show Rookie Blue a week or so ago, when a two-person prisoner transport was hampered by the more docile and unassuming of two prisoners, one appearing innocent and humble.  She tried to stab another, much to the surprise of the officers entrusted with everyone’s lives.

Who are our hummingbird bullies? 
More importantly, what are we doing about them, and for them, as they came by their ways through modeling, certainly overindulgence, as possibly even abuse and/or neglect. 
A first step involves an identification of that which we cannot see.


Dr. Ryan Donlan specialized in identifying and intervening with Hummingbird Bullies, and would love to spend a bit of time talking with you about yours.  Please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

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