Time to discuss disrespect with our kids

When I started teaching this year, I was unprepared for the consistent disrespect of women that I heard from kids in my classroom. Comments like ‘you’re such a little girl’, ‘that stupid bitch’ or ‘shes’s such a slut’, were casually hurled around the school by boys and girls alike.

For me, my Year 7 class of 30 boys was the main challenge, but regular comments from the Year 10 girls about each other were not much better. Across the school, there were regular examples of how our society disrespects women.

I quickly made the choice to actively ‘shut down’ these comments in my classroom. Each time I heard them I would stop the class and explain what had happened. I revealed exactly why those comments were so ‘bad’. It wasn’t simply the swearing or the insults, it was the inherently derogatory nature of the comments towards women. It was the disrespect.

We discussed why disliking a Prime Minister’s policy, had nothing to do with their gender. We attempted to unpack what ‘victim blaming’ is and talked about the notion of ‘slut shaming’. We work-shopped why relationships and sexuality are matters of personal own choice, and nobody else’s business.

With these small ‘side lessons’ and regular conversations, attitudes began to change and the comments slowly stopped in my classroom. Unfortunately, a genuine understanding still wasn’t there. In the wild ride that is first year teaching, I had felt that I wasn’t able to really address this issue in a way that made an impact.

This week, I wanted to try again to do something about it. With White Ribbon Day, I decided to hold a lesson on ‘respect’ with my Year 7’s and 10s.

I began with a quote from our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull:

“Disrespecting women doesn’t always lead to violence but all violence against women begins with disrespect.”

We watched a series of videos from the White Ribbon campaign, unpacked key terms and then held a discussion lead by students. I wanted to hear their ideas for solving this issue, starting in our own school.

I was blown away by the calm and respectful way the Year 7 boys approached the topic. Gone were the days of giggling about the man on YouTube ‘joking’ about hitting a woman. They were engaged, focused and serious.

Mindful of the dark and emotional aspects of the topic, I made sure that they knew that I was not saying the violence against women in Australia was their fault. I simply explained why they have a responsibility to change the cultural attitudes in Australia that leads to it.

The Year 10’s were different. Their initial discussion was music to my ears. Comments were on point and the discussion lead to ideas that the school could implement to improve respect, particularly towards women. Unfortunately, this ended with derogatory remarks about the sexual lives of girls in their year.

To me, this was absolutely unacceptable. I wasn’t getting through to them. They didn’t understand the damage of those types of ‘whispers’ and the disrespect it showed to women more generally.

To get through to all students, we need to share with them the truth. They don’t just need sugar-coated stories and discussions. They don’t just need friendly videos. They need real stories from real people about what disrespect can ultimately lead to.

Our Prime Minister is right, it all starts with disrespect and my school isn’t the only one with these challenges.  All schools have a responsibility to be part of a cultural shift that empowers young girls and boys to both believe in themselves and respect each other.

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