Teachers, Sexism and ViolenceFirst Published in January 1994 edition of Education Supplement
It's a scene found on most school playgrounds. A boy, undersize for his age, gets shoved to the ground as he jostles for a loose basketball. I intervene in the name of fairness and one of my male Grade 6 students comments, "It's like the woods, Mr. D., the strongest survive", as he dribbles away eager to continue the game.
In that 11 year-old's summation of an abusive incident lies an accurate analysis of how boys are socialized from a very young age to be tough, in control and aggressive. These sex role expectations are even found in boy's comic books. This ad appeared on the back cover of a Superman comic I "borrowed" from a student that was supposed to be doing Math. Bold type, "Pick A Fight After School", small print below video game boxes, "After a hard day at school, have you ever just wanted to go home and break a few heads, destroy a couple of cities? Or just blow up the entire universe? Of course you have. And now you can without getting grounded. Just plug in any of these four smash arcade hits..... and get ready for the fight of your life."
What influences the minds of children today is overwhelming. My students will watch, on average, 22 hours of television per week, including18,000 violent deaths, by the end of grade 12. Based on time alone (not to mention stimulation effect) the entertainment industry is the first curriculum in young peoples lives. It's a fantasy world where the powerful survive and the heroes are Terminator and GI Joe.
As we look at these and other dominate influences it should come as no surprise that newspapers are now reporting children bringing guns to school as well as a rise in swarming gangs and teacher abuse surveys. Schools still remain one of the last opportunities in society where positive values are transmitted but there is a lot of work to be done. Society and its primary professional mentors, teachers, are looking beyond reactions to violence by demands to toughen the Young Offenders Act. We need to look at where these attitudes are learned. How the practice of being male is taught ( it is men, lets face it that do 98% of the violence). When we understand how we learn then we can teach a lifetime of skills and attitudes to children.
A resource called Healthy Relationships: A Violence Prevention Curriculum for grades 7, 8 and 9 has recently been developed by Men For Change in cooperation with the Halifax County and Bedford District School Board in an attempt to meet this need. Grade 7 activities focus on aggression and emotions, Grade 8 deals with media literacy and sexist stereotypes and Grade 9 asserts healthy choices over of date rape. Men For Change is a Halifax based men's group that formed after the Montreal Massacre to look a t what we, as men, can do to end violence against women, children and ourselves. We have since conducted dozens of workshops with eager teachers and insightful students in Halifax County. We look forward to sharing our resource with other school boards.< p> Sexism and violence are integrally linked as anyone working with battered women would attest. If we also believe that but sexism is learned and violence is one manifestation then our schools, as learning places, are one the best places to help children learn healthy attitudes towards gender. However schools can also be a place where we as teachers unknowingly pass on sexist and stereotype loaded expectations to the boys and girls we teach.
Subtle messages get passed to children when we have them separating into boys and girls groups to line up or hang up their coats The perspective that the world is to be viewed through male eyes may not even be considered next time we refer to a room of boys and girls by the popular term 'guys'. Even the amount of praise we give male students or the statistic that boy's hands are answered more frequently than girls are only small ways we may be contributing to a problem.
The following more explicit examples occurred in three different Junior High Schools in the Metro area. They are examples, hopefully even exceptions to the rule, but each bear witness to how teachers unknowingly legitimize male stereotypes and it's violent practice.
I was recently in a Junior High early one morning making photocopies before a workshop when a Grade 9 student came into the building to seek refuge from others who had just punched him in the chest and kicked him. The duty teacher responded, " You're a b ig guy, why don't you stand up for yourself?" The student stated simply, "I don't fight". The teacher then sent him back out to tell the perpetrators to come in. As my own students would say, Duh!! Not only was that young man's need for safety ignored but I had a strong sense that nothing would be resolved even if his assaulters got suspended for a few days. My sense that the problem was not truly resolved was confirmed. I met the victimized student half an hour later in the washroom cleaning up the bloo d from a punch in the nose he had just received.
If we believe that violence is something that men and boys learn and use to maintain power over others then suspensions and other punitive measures, like a tougher Young Offenders Act are not the means to end violence. They merely offer token consequence in a society where violence is rampant, profitable and embodied as the very essence of what it means to act like a man.
Sometimes the messages to live up to this image come out through subtle comments. I was in another school where a grade 9 class teacher was welcoming students for the afternoon. A student asked him for a band-aid. The teacher obliged and commented, "I guess you lost that on huh! What's the matter couldn't you stand up to him?"
One of Men For Changes' first in school workshop experiences several years ago was with a class of Grade 8 boys. We had a good dialogue about being macho, stereotypes and date rape. The discussion wrapped up10 minutes before the bell so the teacher hit p lay on the VCR with a Hockey's Hardest Hitters Vol1 tape.
These anecdotes from the front lines may not be very pleasant to read at a time when teachers seem to be undervalued and stressed out but lets not forget the teachable moment here for all of us. As in all social change movements, from the successful TA DD ( Teens Against Drunk Driving) programs to anti- Racism objectives, the first step begins with an awareness of the breadth of the problem. It is when we realize how deep the roots and tradition of violence is that we begin to see the solutions.
We need to all work together and challenge the deeply ingrained illusion that we are all lock into a rigid stereotype, tough and aggressive for boys, passive and beauty bound, for girls. Then and only then will we be helping teach our students, and ours elves, not the law of the jungle where only the strongest survive, but rather the choices needed to build healthy relationships based on cooperation and trust where everyone is thrives.
By PETER DAVISON
Peter is a former grade 5/6 teacher at St. Mary's Elementary School in Halifax and a member of the Men For Change Education Committee that developed Healthy Relationships: A Violence Prevention Curriculum. Mail: Box 33005, Quinpool Postal Station, Halifax, N.S. B3L 4T6