'Why should I listen to you, Miss?'

12th July 2013 at 01:00
Lewd comments, blatant sexism and disrespect from students present a serious problem. Those affected say attitudes must be challenged and action taken, but how?

Would you like to come skiing with me this weekend?"

As a suggestion for a first date, it had glamour and extravagance working in its favour. Working against it, however, was the fact that it was being proposed by a 17-year-old boy.

"I did my training at an independent school," Donna French says. "I was teaching young, rich, white boys, so confident about their place in the world that they genuinely thought that they had a chance.

"There would be low-level things, too: trying to be your friend on Facebook, sending Valentine's cards, trying to find out where you lived. They'll do it if you're under the age of 50 and vaguely presentable. They're not very discerning."

Starting out as a new teacher can be difficult for anyone. But for women - particularly young women, often only a few years older than their students - starting a new job can create additional stresses that have little to do with lesson planning or classroom management.

During her training year, English-teacher French found that one boy was particularly relentless with his attention. "He was smooth," she says. "Constantly asking me out on dates. The assumption was that I would be really grateful and happy that a 17-year-old millionaire was asking me out.

"And he was just really patronising. He'd say, `Come on, you know and I know that there's a real thing going on between us.'"

French decided to raise the issue with the boy's parents. But when the boy's father sat down in front of her at parents' evening, his first comment was: "Oh, I can see why he likes English so much."

The man then began explaining French's own subject to her, addressing his comments directly to her chest. When she eventually managed to raise the subject of his son's behaviour, the man simply shrugged and said: "Ah, boys will be boys."

"I thought, `That's where his son gets it from'," French says. "It explains a lot, really. It's so unusual to find a horrible kid with nice parents, or vice versa. You can almost guarantee that if the child is vile then the parents will be vile. If the parent has a total lack of respect for women then the child will as well, because they know they can get away with it."

But not all sex-specific misbehaviour is specifically sexual. Parental attitudes towards women can be refracted into the classroom in a range of different ways. Some boys, for example, simply refuse to accept the authority of female teachers at all.

Like father, like son

This was Gwen Temple's experience. The deputy head of Lawrence Sheriff boys' school, in the central England town of Rugby, talks about one boy who was a model student in certain classes and a consistent troublemaker in others.

"There was a marked contrast in how the child behaved," she says. "There were these huge issues in some subjects, but not in others. There was acting up, definitely, and wanting to play the class clown. The teacher would say, `Stop now' and there would always be something extra. It was likely lad, kingpin-of-the-classroom behaviour."

When teachers came together to discuss the boy, they realised that the two types of behaviour followed a clear pattern. In classes taught by men, he was quiet and compliant. But when taught by a woman, he would immediately begin to act up.

And so the school called a meeting with the boy's parents. Quickly, the template for his behaviour became apparent. "The father played more of a role in disciplining the children at home," Temple says. "The father was the spokesperson for the family. Usually, the pattern you see is that the mother is very involved in school. In this family, the father was the spokesperson, and seemed to be the one the child was in awe of."

As the poet Philip Larkin said, they fuck you up, your mum and dad. But blaming the parents, while tempting, can sometimes be too simple a response. After all, families do not operate in a vacuum. The broader community to which families belong, and within which their children are raised, can affect the ways in which those children view and understand the world. And that worldview is then played out in the classroom.

During her years teaching in a London school with a large Asian intake, French encountered one teenage boy whose behaviour started out as disrespectful and quickly accelerated into illegal. (Because the police were eventually involved, she has asked to remain anonymous: Donna French is not her real name.)

But she is quick to point out that this is not a blanket condemnation of all families from similar backgrounds. "The culture in lots of Asian communities is really, really supportive, really nice," she says. "There are parents who would be genuinely horrified and shocked if their kids hadn't done their homework.

"But I'm sure that this boy's behaviour - quite a misogynistic, patriarchal thing - was in part because of his background."

The boy's behaviour was, initially, annoying but unexceptional: he and his friends would make vaguely sexual comments as French passed them in the corridor, often clicking at her and making lewd gestures. Whenever she turned around to ask what they had said, they would nonchalantly respond with: "Oh, nothing."

The ringleader, however, did not stop at catcalling. "He clearly had a problem with women in general," French says. "He was always making quite pornographic remarks about girls' bodies and figures. And he was obsessed with sex. You could be talking about a chair, and he'd be, `Oh! Boobs!'"

Then, after one lesson, he walked up to French and grabbed her breast. "Ooh, they're massive!" he said. Shortly afterwards, he was expelled.

When his parents were called into school, French discovered that the mother had no control over her son. "He was incredibly dominant and abusive towards his mum," she says. "Clearly there was a complete breakdown in his relationship with women."

But the influences of a child's background - whether family or community - are not irreversible. Teachers may have no control over the attitudes with which their students start school, but they can certainly influence the attitudes with which they leave.

Nakia Hardy is assistant superintendent for schools in Rockingham County, in the US state of North Carolina. Before being promoted, she was principal of Rockingham's Broadview Middle School. The school serves primarily black or Hispanic families: of 750 students on the roll under Hardy's stewardship, less than 10 per cent were white. However, Hardy struggled to recruit African-American or Hispanic teachers. Instead, she found herself hiring a primarily white, female staff.

"There was a lot of poverty in the school," she says. "In the places where the students socialised and lived, they did not see a lot of white females. Or if they did, they were social workers, taking kids away from home. It was not a positive experience."

As a result, teachers could not automatically assume that they would walk into a classroom and be treated with respect. In fact, most found that they were just ignored: the students were simply not interested in what they had to say. And so they put real thought and effort into cultivating relationships with their students. "They connected with things that were important to the students," Hardy says. "It was athletics or music. Pop culture."

And they would make a particular effort to identify class ringleaders. Then, they would seek out these ringleaders when they were on their own, with no friends nearby to impress, and make conversation. For example, a teacher might see a teenager wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of the Duke University basketball team, and chat about a recent match. Alternatively, they would go along to after-school sports events, even if only for 10 minutes. The briefest glimpse of the game would still be enough to generate a one-on-one conversation the following day.

"The big thing that comes out is that they're able to develop relationships with the kids," Hardy says. "And those relationships were able to overcome the things the teachers didn't necessarily have, in terms of cultural understanding."

In essence, what Hardy's teachers were doing was demonstrating respect for the teenagers' own culture: their music and sports interests. The same tactic - albeit in less pop-cultural form - was adopted by Pete Slough, headteacher of Small Heath School and Sixth Form Centre, in the English city of Birmingham.

Cultural understanding

At Small Heath, 99.8 per cent of students are Muslim, and more than 90 per cent are from an Asian background. Slough has turned the students' cultural heritage into one of his school's strengths. "There's male domination around in these parts," he says. "You tend to get a male strength in Asian cultures. But I make sure that isn't brought into school. I use the other strengths of the culture: the religion and the belief in the importance of the mother figure in the household."

The Koran, he points out, mandates that teachers should be afforded the same respect as parents. "That has an instant impact on children," he says. "They really do listen to the teachings that are important to them, and have been delivered to them since the age of nil.

"In my own understanding, the mum is very, very important. Through Islam, this great, huge respect is paid to the mother, and also to parents and elders. The children in this area are very respectful to their elders, and we use that. Every teacher in this school is their elder, and must be treated with respect. It's written so. It's written in the Koran."

Whenever new teachers start at Small Heath, Slough makes sure that they acquire a full understanding of the families and communities that the school serves. For example, over the past few years, the number of Somali students on the roll has risen, so that about 8 per cent of students are now from a Somali background. "We've had to educate our teachers about the culture of the Somali population in the school," Slough says.

"We've built that into our professional development, allowing colleagues to be more mindful of the way in which they approach children. You have to think ahead of your changing population, so you're ready to receive them. It has to be a flexible and understanding system."

But in a world of competing demands on professional development time, there is a limit to how thoroughly teachers can learn to understand another culture. Despite her teachers' interest in their students' lives and music tastes, Hardy was frustrated by the superficiality of that connection.

"One of the things I was disappointed about (was) that it was truly just hip-hop culture, just music," she says. "That doesn't show that you understand the difficulties that African-American males are facing. They weren't really understanding the whole idea of oppression and slavery and how that impacts on kids.

"I think it's important for teachers to spend a bit of time understanding their own sources of power: understanding white privilege, understanding race. Understanding your own racial development, and how that's different from someone else's racial development. You need to value those differences. That's what I want our teachers to see in those children."

But the role of school is also to challenge teenagers' own assumptions. So, when faced with the boy with selectively sexist behavioural problems, Temple decided to tackle the issue at parental source. The boy's parents were invited into school to meet a senior teacher. Very deliberately, it was decided that this senior teacher should be female.

"It was: this is a figure of authority in this school, and that's how things work here," Temple says. "We didn't overtly mention a female-male thing, but just concentrated on the behaviours, because those were the things that needed to be improved. But we put a woman in authority, and it's not up for debate."

This approach, she insists, is not about undermining messages from parents or from the broader community. It is about ensuring that students are equipped to function in the world beyond the school gates. "Obviously, we don't undo people's culture, and we wouldn't want to do that," she says. "But the school's authority system has to work.

"We don't want just to prepare students to stay in their own particular community. We want to equip them to go to higher education. To mix with women who have very strong opinions: students and lecturers. So we want to educate them to respect everybody."

Command respect

In fact, this non-negotiation of authority is a tactic that Temple recommends for all female teachers. When she was younger, she - like French - found that students regularly made comments that were slightly too familiar, too jokey, too personal. So she quickly learned the value of a judiciously raised eyebrow.

"I think it can be about size, more than anything," she says. "Sometimes teenagers take more notice of men, because they're bigger. They're more of a physical presence in the classroom. But kids will take their cues from us, as teachers. If you're consistent, kids will learn that you may look 15, but they can't treat you like you're 15. If you're very clear to yourself what you allow, in terms of familiarity, flippancy, you can work to create that distance.

"You just insist they respect you in the way you want to be respected. You make yourself noticeable. Teenagers seem to recognise if you've got an inner core of strength and humanity, and they like that. If you're comfortable in your own body, they recognise that."

French agrees. After the student who had assaulted her was expelled, he began to write letters to her. These began by accusing her of ruining his life: "My life's over. You should have more forgiveness." Eventually, however, the letters became overtly threatening, and the police were brought in.

But such incidents are rare, she insists. For most female teachers who become the unwitting focus of adolescent lust, the key is simply to reinforce repeatedly the distinction between student and teacher.

"Sending a Valentine's card to a teacher is quite a brave thing to do. Quite a strange thing to do," she says. "But you just ignore it, the same as you ignore a Facebook request. Nine times out of 10, it goes away. Only one time out of 10 - or maybe 0.1 times out of 10 - it goes wrong."

Photo credit: Alamy

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