‘Boys wrote rape threats in books they knew I'd open’

Ex-teacher talks to Tes about her "brutal and shocking" experience as part of Tes' #TeachersToo sexual harassment exposé

Claudia Civinini

Sexual harassment and abuse of teachers in schools: 'Student abuse drove me out of my school,' says former teacher as part of Tes' #TeachersToo investigation

Life is already hard for early career teachers, but there are certain experiences that can make it brutal.

One of these is sexual harassment. The issue has been highlighted recently by Everyones Invited and Ofsted in terms of harassment of pupils. However, teachers – often young early career female staff – are also targeted

It is not a rare occurrence: a recent Tes survey found that almost one in four teachers had been the target of sexual harassment and abuse over the past year. Four per cent said they had experienced sexual assault, but the most commonly reported type was verbal sexual harassment.

For Hanna Retallack, a lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education who was previously a secondary English teacher, verbal sexual harassment from students was a regular occurrence early in her career and "drove her out" of one school.

She tells Tes: “In the early years of my teaching career I was at a large school – there was regular verbal sexual harassment. Certainly every week. I’d say it drove me out of the school.


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“I had boys commenting on my body as I was teaching, writing rape threats in books they knew I’d open, asking about ‘did I perform certain sexual acts’ when I was walking around the playground… it was brutal, and quite shocking.”

Teachers suffering sexual harassment and abuse

And the school dealt with the incidents in a way that she felt would not empower victims.

“The way that that school dealt with it – and I’d say this way of dealing with it probably does persist in some schools – is that they would bring in a very shouty male senior leader, he would shout at the boy in a very masculine way, and I would stand there like a passive female victim, and that boy would be sent home for a day,” she recounts.

“And then what tended to happen was that the boy would show up again in my classroom the next day and start calling me a bitch or whatever he wanted to call me.”

She adds that a common mistake is treating these acts as "one-off" incidents.

She says: “Where schools at times fall down on this is dealing with these issues as ‘one-offs’, rather than dealing with the systemic issues that are propping up these behaviours.

“Obviously, if a boy is actually abusing a female member of staff, it needs to be dealt with, of course, in terms of what that particular student has done.

“However, it also needs to be dealt with on a systematic level, where there are zero-tolerance policies, where there is a host of training around what is and isn’t acceptable and what can be done to support you if these things happen, and where all young people are educated about the consequences… none of that existed at all in that school."

Teaching students how to talk about sexual harassment

Since this experience, Ms Retallack has worked with young people in schools on issues of gender-based harassment and violence through setting up feminism clubs and organising conferences and campaigns, and has focused her PhD study in this area.

She says she has realised that the language to speak about issues of sexism, sexual harassment and abuse was largely missing and that was a crucial piece of the puzzle to ensure that the issues could be solved.

She says: “In the early years of my teaching career, I didn’t have the language to really speak about what was going on, about sexism, feminism, misogyny, because I wasn’t taught about this at school.

"That’s why I became really passionate about setting up feminism groups, and what happened in these feminism groups was that, generally, girls, although I ran groups for boys, too, would start speaking about experiences that had made them really uncomfortable.

“They didn’t know what to do about them and as we talked, we started realising how many of them had experienced the same things and we would start giving those things names and words.

“Giving students a space in which to discover that language is extremely powerful and it’s the only way to get out of this situation. That’s a really positive part of social media.

"Everyone’s Invited could not exist without Instagram, but also without those young people from those schools, who are writing those testimonials, having learned a whole language around sexism – words like ‘rape culture’ which are not taught by schools– so they are able to speak about these issues and realise when things are wrong.”

She adds that feminism clubs in schools can provide this type of knowledge for students – but she believes it needs to be embedded in the relationships and sex education curriculum.

She adds: “Teachers need to be trained around these issues through initial teacher training – for their own benefit and, of course, for the students'.

“If I had had access to an education around issues of sexism and other intersecting forms of oppression, I would have been able to speak up about those issues in a completely different way.”

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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