Posted on June 23rd, 2011
Ros Brown holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature and trained as a secondary English teacher in Edinburgh last year. During her training year, she completed two extended essays focusing on gender equity in schools and in children’s literature. She has now completed her time as a probationer teacher, and is preparing to move to England to continue her career.
In schools like the one where I teach, it happens all too frequently. You’re teaching something perfectly innocuous, perhaps the use of apostrophes or how to use a formal register, when a student, drunk on his own wit, pipes up with something that makes you catch your breath: “Aye, Paul, everyone knows you raped me last night.”
It’s a fourteen-year-old boy speaking to his best mate. You’re ninety-nine percent sure it’s not meant to be taken seriously by anyone. But multiply this comment by twenty or thirty, and vary its content to include references to beatings, knifings and various other sexual threats, and you’re starting to get the picture of an average day in some secondary schools.
Of course, it can be argued that these are adolescents trying to explore boundaries, to get a feel for what it is and isn’t OK to say, to develop their attitudes to sex and violence through relatively harmless joking and banter. You’d be right, in most cases. But imagine that, in the same class, there is another child, sitting perfectly quietly, staring at the desk, whose mother is regularly raped and beaten by her partner. Or a student whose sister was sexually assaulted a fortnight ago by her parents’ lodger. Or a child who is experiencing domestic abuse him- or herself.
As a teacher, you won’t often know this kind of information: details of students’ home lives are rarely disseminated amongst staff unless absolutely necessary. The other students may well be ignorant too (or they may know and not care). All of this combines to produce a situation where it’s nigh impossible to make sure that no one comes away from your lesson, or the school day, emotionally bruised, tormented or frightened.
Luckily, however, something is being done. The new Scottish Curriculum for Excellence has made Health and Wellbeing concerns the responsibility of all teachers, so we now have a duty to develop students’ ability to discuss and understand issues like these. Plus, the Scottish Government is funding a new teachers’ resource on domestic abuse, to enable staff to become better-informed about the topic, and able to tackle it head on. The resource will contain ideas for best practice and will be linked to GLOW, the Scottish national intranet for schools.
I am always reluctant to let students openly discuss their own views on issues such as rape and violence in class. Many students hold opinions that would be considered offensive by many, and are often not willing or able to adapt their views in the fact of reasoned argument from either staff or other students. Trying to convince them that women are not to blame for rape, or that battering someone isn’t the answer to a minor slur on one’s dignity, is often a losing battle: they’re getting these ideas from someone else, someone with a far stronger claim on their attention than a teacher.
As I’m an English teacher, my instinct would be to study a text with the class that contains episodes of domestic abuse. ‘The Breadwinner’ by Leslie Halward, for instance, is a short, readable story that focuses on a boy and his mother colluding to keep his wages away from his alcoholic, violent father. Although the characters are fairly simply drawn and there’s an element of gender stereotyping, it’s a text that works well with lower-ability students in particular: the moment where the boy is beaten with a belt is shocking enough to make even the toughest third-year sit still for a moment.
So I’m optimistic about this new resource – it will begin to help us take a more active role in looking at domestic abuse in a constructive way, teaching students the critical literacy skills necessary to come to a reasonable conclusion. And, considering how disgracefully delicate issues can be distorted by the tabloid media and the internet, it doesn’t come a moment too soon.