The other F-word

14th February 2014 at 00:00

Matronly women like me pass undetected through a world where being overtly attractive seems to be the highest aspiration.

My unthreatening veneer and my gender give me a great advantage as a teacher. I feel almost invincible when dealing with difficult lads: if there is a flare-up in an all-male group, I am able to break up fights and talk down angry young men with confidence.

This year, however, my teaching cohorts are exclusively female. In all- women groups, I am never as secure. There is something about being a girl with other girls that makes me feel slightly vulnerable either to a slap or a personal insult.

On only one occasion during my career have these fears been warranted. The young woman in question strutted into my class 40 minutes late without an apology or even acknowledging the clock. I wouldn't allow her to stay. As she thundered through the classroom, she stopped, shrieking into my face, "You know what you are? You're a fucking bitch."

I was amazed. I had assumed that she would go for "fat bitch", and I was prepared for that. It wouldn't have been entirely inaccurate: I am a fat woman. But in all my time of teaching occasionally very challenging learners, there have been no comments about my size. Until recently .

This term, I wanted to embed the functional literacy curriculum within my group's vocational area. After discussing it with their tutor, we decided I would use their current topic as a theme for my classes. I was gung-ho about this until I discovered what the topic was: "A healthy diet to combat obesity."

"How awkward," I thought as I smoothed down my size 20 slacks.

Although I knew I had to tread carefully, I also had to protect my position as class leader. And to do that required an element of oh-to-hell-with-it honesty.

I decided to tackle the issue head-on. "This week's class is about the dangers of obesity," I announced.

A few students exchanged glances, instantly detecting the irony. "Now, I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm obese. I've almost always been overweight, but right now I'm really fat. I am not defined by it. It doesn't undermine my confidence. I am fit and healthy at the moment, but I know that if I remain this size, I won't continue to be." Eighteen jaws dropped simultaneously.

I carried on: "Obesity is what we're talking about, it's what you're studying and none of that hurts my feelings. Has anyone got any questions?"

The class was much harder for the group than for me. Although the students produced lots of great work, they struggled to use the F-word, replacing it with cosy euphemisms. But I was impressed that my presence in the classroom caused them to think about their social sensitivity as well as about the health issues.

I am sure that the lesson will be recounted as an anecdote. I hope that seeing me confront a difficult subject without apology will help to frame how my learners deal with the subject themselves.

Sarah Simons works in a large further education college in Mansfield, England.

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