Posts Tagged ‘School’

Dear Mrs Speakman,

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recently read in The Guardian about the efforts of one of your students to set up a Feminist Society within your school, and about the backlash she and her fellow students have suffered as a result of it. Almost as disheartening as the rampant misogyny of their detractors, however, was the response of the school itself, which was to require their work to be taken down from the internet.
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In your words (my emphasis), “We are committed to protecting the safety and welfare of our students, which extends to their safety online… As such, we will take steps to recommend students remove words or images that they place online that could compromise their safety or that of other students at the school.”
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Mrs Speakman, not only is this contradictory – you start out by saying that the school is committed to protecting its students, then place the onus of protection on the students themselves – it is perilously close to victim-blaming. Your girls have been viciously attacked for standing up for their rights, and your response has been to suggest that, by making a simple, courteous plea for equality, they have endangered themselves. The fact that this endangerment is itself the problem has apparently passed you by: in your rush to protect your students, you have done the opposite, effectively sanctioning the violence being directed against them by saying that, to all intents and purposes, they brought it on themselves.
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You have unambiguously told your students that only silence can protect them; that if they wish to be safe, then they should neither draw attention to themselves nor advocate for their rights. By withdrawing the school’s support, you have given power to their assailants and effectively punished the girls for being unquiet victims. You have taken away their voice, and you have told them it’s for their own good.
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Mrs Speakman, I am generally opposed to same-sex educational institutions. Whatever benefits can be derived by separating and teaching children by gender in our highly gender-sensitive society is, I feel, subsumed beneath the inescapable weight of the fact that real life is coed. But despite the learning environment you provide for them, your girls are acutely aware of this reality: in fact, they are actively dealing with its consequences, and thanks to you, they are doing so alone. Perhaps you feel that, as the threats being made against them are coming from outside Altrincham, the issue is out of your hands. Perhaps you feel you have no control over what outsiders say to your students, and are therefore simply trying to engage in damage control.
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But I wonder, Mrs Speakman – would your attitude still be the same if Altrincham were a coed school: if the tirade of racist, sexist, misogynist abuse being levelled at your girls was coming from their male classmates – boys whose actions did fall within your bailiwick? Would your reaction to that scenario have been the same? Knowing that you would be forced to face the consequences of doing so on a daily basis, would you still have told the girls that the price of their safety was silence, and that the best response to abuse at the hands of their male peers was never to speak out against it? I dearly hope not; but the point, Mrs Speakman, is that these boys are still learning from your actions. They might not be your students, but they are students of the world, and when they see you withdrawing support from your girls, they learn that sexism is correct: that the girls who made a fuss, rather than the boys who attacked them, are the ones at fault, and that they should be castigated accordingly.
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As well as emailing the school, I’m making this letter public – partly to increase the chances of your seeing it, but mostly because this is an issue I’m passionate about. You have made a bad decision, and in so doing have left your girls to deal with sexist vitriol in isolation. But it is not too late to change things. You can issue an apology; you can reaffirm your support. You can give them the confidence they need to continue advocating for their rights, not only while they’re at school, but once they’ve left its walls. Because while you might think that silence equals safety while they’re under your care, in an all-female environment, that won’t be true forever – if, indeed, it was ever true at all. One day soon, your girls will graduate, but until then, you have a choice: to support them in defending themselves, or to tell them to sit in silence.
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I hope you make the right one.
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Yours sincerely,
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Foz Meadows

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

Back in 2010, my publisher organised a multiple author event at an all-boys primary school. The oldest students were twelve or so,  and though children from other, co-ed schools were brought in for the day, the audience was still primarily male. Most of the other authors present wrote middle-grade or children’s books, making me just about the only one there whose books were aimed at older teens. This being my first school event, I was nervous and feeling rather glum. On the long walk from the train station to the school, I privately resigned myself to making the best of an awkward situation: no one there would have heard of me, my books were for the wrong age-group, and in any case, my protagonist was a girl – surely the worst possible combination for the situation at hand.

Being one of the first to arrive, I helped the publisher set up, which involved lots of back-and-forth trips between two different buildings on opposite sides of the main quad. While we were ferrying chairs and goody-bags across this route, students began to appear: some in teacher-supervised groups, others alone, but all of them clearly destined for participation in the event. And then a strange thing happened: I heard one of them whisper my name. At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but then I heard another boy say, louder, ‘That’s Foz Meadows.’  Then I remembered the programmes, which contained our names and author photos, and which several of the students were holding. That must be it, I thought, and carried on moving chairs.

Only, no, that wasn’t it. The school library carried Solace & Grief, their wonderful and dedicated librarian had promoted it to her students, and I had fans. A number of them, as it turned out. They’d known who I was before the event, and had recognised me, not from the photo in the programme, but because they’d looked me up on the internet. (The librarian told me that they’d known I was young “Because she has a blog and a Twitter and stuff”.) Throughout the day, one group of boys in particular kept me company. They waved to me during the event, talked about how much they loved to read, and told me what they wanted to be when they grew up. One boy was particularly specific about his ambitions: he wanted to be a army sniper, so he could learn how to do all the maths about cross-winds and distance and line of sight necessary to calculate and execute a shot. It was a brilliant day: every copy of my book was sold, I spoke to some awesome students – and I was presented with definitive proof that boys can and will read books with female protagonists written by female authors.

I didn’t write Solace & Grief for teenage girls. I wrote it for the sort of person who likes that sort of story, regardless of how old they are or what gender they happen to have. And yet part of me was still startled to find that I had young, male fans – not because I hadn’t meant for such people to read it, but because our culture so rigidly enforces the idea that anything dubbed Female isn’t for men. And the thing is, even though all the boys I met were bright and engaged and interested, their exposure to and enjoyment of the book didn’t happen in a vacuum: it happened because they had an awesome librarian who, above and beyond caring about her students, understood that stories are genderless, and that there was no good reason why curating the library for an all boys’ school meant she shouldn’t stock and promote a YA vampire novel with a female protagonist.

As has been pointed out by Saundra Mitchell, Seanan McGuire and Maureen Johnson, the current panic about the so-called dearth of books for boys is both hypocritical and deeply problematic: hypocritical, in that it ignores the fact that up until quite recently, the vast majority of all literature was written by and for men, with women just being expected to cope with it; and deeply problematic, in that it hinges on the idea that it’s both impossible and unreasonable to expect boys to read books that are aimed at girls (which, see above, re: hypocrisy). Let me just say it flat out: if you think there’s something inherently wrong with boys reading about romance, empathising with female characters or enjoying books aimed primarily at girls, your outlook on gender is skewed beyond the ability of a single blog to correct it. If you think there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but that we still need more boy-friendly books: no. For centuries, no one was concerned that books weren’t girl-friendly, because no one really cared if girls read; but even so, we persisted for long enough that literature has slowly come to accommodate us. Modern boys, by contrast, are not trying to read in a culture of opposition. Nobody is telling them reading doesn’t matter, that boys don’t need to read and that actually, no prospective wife looks for literacy in a husband. Quite the opposite! Male literary culture thrives, both teachers and parents are throwing books at their sons, and the fact that the books aren’t sticking isn’t, as the nature of the complaint makes clear, because boys don’t like reading – no. The accusation is that boys don’t like reading about girls, which is a totally different matter.

Because constantly, consistently, our supposedly equal society penalises boys who express an interest in anything feminine. The only time boys are discouraged from books all together is in contexts where, for whatever reason, they’ve been given the message that reading itself is girly – which is a wider extrapolation of the same problem. Thanks to the advent of feminism, certain previously male-dominated activities have become gender neutral; but offhand, I cannot think of a single traditionally female pastime to have achieved the same status (except, possibly, for cooking, and even then only on the domestic scale, male chefs and waiters having a longstanding and frequently sexist tradition of their own). And as women have integrated themselves into literature and education, we’ve seen a subtle shift in perspective happen. The majority of primary school teachers are now women, and have been for some time; at high school, the stereotypical English/humanities teacher has become female; and then, of course, there’s the recent explosion of YA novels written by and for women to consider.

The fact that these changes have paralleled the decline of teenage males’ interest in reading isn’t a coincidence. However, this is not, as certain people would have it, because women have feminised literature with our magical vaginabooks and therefore made reading inherently unpalatable to the masculine half of the population. No: it’s because everything in our culture tells men and boys to avoid any interest, activity or community dominated by women – and when article after article insists that boys are reading less than girls; when the pop cultural discourse shies away from portraying boys as readers, or closely associates male reading with male unpopularity and outcastness; when the humanities is widely touted as being the feminine alternative to the masculine sciences; when finally, after centuries of exclusion, girls are actually getting a break at something, the consequence is that boys are keeping away in droves.

Let me tell you a story. On annual camp in primary school, I became amazingly good at a game called box hockey, an activity I’ve never encountered before or since, which none of us kids at the time had otherwise experienced, and which we therefore came to completely free of gender expectations. All of us tried it out at first, but as the boys soon proved their dominion, the majority of girls drifted away to do other things. I, however, loved it, and played at every opportunity – and I got good. So good, in fact, that soon I was the best player at camp. And do you know, internets, what happened when this became known?

The boys stopped playing. Because my repeated victories had demonstrated, not that I was a skilled player, but that box hockey itself was so easy that even a girl could win at it, and was therefore unworthy of further effort. I was, quite literally, left with no one to play with. Feeling this to be rather unfair but still wanting to play sport during the lunch break, I decided to join in at cricket instead. Unlike box hockey, cricket was well-established as a masculine domain. None of the boys wanted me to play, because I was a girl and would therefore clearly be terrible, a hindrance to whichever team was lumped with me. But even though they came from a different school to me, the boys finally, grudgingly and after great conference agreed to give me a go. They sent me to the farthest reaches of the outfield, where I could do as little damage as possible. But luck was with me. One of the batsmen made a fantastic shot to where I was – and I caught it, because I was good at fielding. The nature of the catch was such that they had to recognise my skills. I was allowed to bowl, and to bat, and by the end of the day, having proved that I was just as good at anyone at all those activities, I was declared one of the boys. Unlike box hockey, cricket was too noble a game to be sullied by female success: my prowess here made me exceptional rather than ruining the sport, and so while no other girls were allowed to play, whenever some new boy questioned my right to be there, every boy who’d seen me make that first catch vigorously defended me. I was OK, they said. I was one of the boys.

I learned two things from this experience: that if a girl was good at something boys had no history with, they would promptly declare it uninteresting and force me to quit from lack of acknowledgement; but succeeding at something they loved meant I could transcend being called a girl, which was clearly a sort of insult, and therefore reap benefits denied to other females. At the age of ten, I had been successfully indoctrinated in the fallacy of Equality Means Acting Like A Man by a group of children who’d never heard of sexism, feminism or gender politics, but whose use of the former and rejection of the latter had nonetheless been encouraged their entire lives by a culture that said Girl Things Are Bad And Girls Are Bad Too, Unless They’re Willing To Act Like Boys.

And, as we’re now seeing when it comes to books, this bias is a sword that cuts both ways. Having been raised to exclude girls from manly pursuits, boys are also reluctant to pursue female ones. If that means reading – and in some cases, sadly, it does, reading and other sedentary or indoor hobbies being viewed as the antithesis of sports, and therefore by extension the enemy of all things masculine – then writing more boy-centric books won’t help. (Unless, of course, your ultimate long-term plan is to take reading away from girls and return it to boys, in which case, you fail everything.) If, on the other hand, you want boys and girls to be reading with equal passion and in equal numbers, then a very clear alternative presents itself: teach your boys that there’s nothing wrong with girls, or girl things, period. Take away the stigma, and let everyone read without judgement. Stories are genderless, no matter who writes or stars in them. And if we can’t bear to teach our teenagers that, then we need to seriously rethink our sstatus as an equal and fair society.

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(Side point, while we’re on the topic: I’m so sick of hearing about how it’s unfair to expect boys to read Austen or Bronte because of how ladybooks don’t appeal to teenage boys, and really it’s better to set them Golding or Fitzgerald. Here’s a thought: how about finding some literature written during their lifetimes? I’m sorry to have to point this out, but regardless of gender, the vast majority of teenagers aren’t yet interested in the classics, not because they’re all badly written or unworthy or irrelevant (although some of them probably are), but because they’re almost always an acquired taste, and school is quite possibly the single worst environment in which to try and convey their worth. OK? I know that school is meant to teach teenagers about things they might not otherwise encounter, but if you’re presented with a choice between instilling in students a lifelong love of reading or making sure they’ve read Hemmingway, I’m going to vote the former every time. Almost universally, I hated every single book I was forced to read for school, because their content represented the exact opposite of what I found interesting, and in the rare instances when that wasn’t the case, being forced to analyze them in class made me want to put out my eyes with a fork. Thanks to high school, I cannot so much as contemplate David Mamet, P. D. James, Tim Winton, Tim Flannery, Peter Goldsworthy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Stoppard or Ruth Park without experiencing a strong desire to set fire to something. Which isn’t to say I’ve never revisited anything I read in school – it’s just that, even with the few books I actually liked, it still manages to feel like a form of literary Stockholm syndrome.)

A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to see a children’s show as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was based around the conceit of a magic pencil: there was an interactive screen where a digital cartoon character interacted with images the (male) comedian drew in real-time, with a pre-recorded voice providing one half of their conversation. At four different points, the comedian asked for child volunteers to come up onto the stage and have themselves drawn, with the subsequent caricatures becoming part of the show. It was a small audience mostly comprised of young children and their parents – my friend and I were almost the only exceptions to this – and whenever the call came for volunteers, a sea of eager little hands would stretch into the air.

Sitting directly in front of us was a pigtailed girl, aged about seven, who desperately wanted to participate. Each time she wasn’t chosen, she slumped down dejectedly in her seat, only to spring straight back up again at the next opportunity. There were easily as many girls as boys in the audience, with an equal parity in the number of hands raised; and yet the comedian never picked a girl. The fourth and final time her hand went ignored, the girl in front of us let out a frustrated sigh and exclaimed, ‘He’s only choosing boys!’ Both her outrage at this situation and her powerlessness to correct it were fully evident in her voice, and I felt myself getting angry. I’d noticed the same problem, and hearing it summed up by a child in tones that suggested she’d witnessed the problem before made me utterly disconnect from the show. I tried to think of reasons why the comedian had chosen only boys. Maybe he thought their facial features would make for better caricatures; or perhaps he was worried that the good-natured teasing with which he accompanied his drawings might be more likely to upset a little girl. Maybe he was simply picking the first hand he saw, regardless of who it belonged to. Most likely, though, he didn’t even realise he’d done it: whatever other planning he’d put into his act, the idea of trying to choose two boys and two girls for the sake of equality seemed never to have occurred to him.

When the show was over, I caught sight of the little girl on the way out. She looked forlorn and sad, which is hardly the reaction that a children’s comedy show is meant to provoke, and I left feeling dejected and furious that a seven-year-old girl had already learned that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how badly you want something or how high you raise your hand: just being female is enough to make you invisible. For whatever reason, the comedian hadn’t seen her or any of the other girls in the audience, and no matter how benign the reasons for that blindness might have been, it had unquestionably had consequences.

Earlier in the year, an eagle-eyed blogger used word clouds to illustrate the boy/girl gendered language of toy advertisements. A recent article discussing gender reveal parties hosted by expectant parents shows a sample invitation which reads, “Boy or girl? Astronaut or ballerina? Come spend the afternoon with us when we find out!” Then there are images of congratulatory cards for new parents, where baby boys are praised as brilliant, while baby girls are called beautiful. Children’s books are rife with male characters, but women? Not so much. No sooner is their gender known than children are defined by it: pink for girls, blue for boys, baby dolls for girls, action heroes for boys, kitchens for girls, tools for boys, ponies for girls, cars for boys, and God help any child who wants to play with both.

All this gendering, and then we have the temerity to act surprised and shocked when a seven-year-old girl can clearly and comprehensively identify when she is being discriminated against on the basis of being female.

Early in primary school, I had a friend called Ben. We’d hang out together at lunch and recess and sit together in class, which felt like a fairly normal thing to do. This was not, however, a universally held sentiment: one of the boys in the year above, called Tim, thought there was something deeply wrong with a boy and girl being friends – or, more specifically, he thought that we couldn’t possibly be just friends, and so took to seeking us out on the playground for the sole purpose of first declaring us to be a couple and then taunting us for it. Neither of us liked this, but it was harder on Ben than me. I have a very clear memory of us sitting down together one lunch, only to find that Tim was, as usual, heading straight for us. Ben looked at me and said, ‘I think we’d better split’ – both serious and sad. I nodded, and up he got, walking away to find someone else to talk to. Tim saw this and grinned in triumph, having  accomplished what had evidently been his mission all along: to split us up.

Tim was six when this happened; Ben and I were five. I very much doubt that Tim’s parents ever sat him down and explain that boys and girls being friends was wrong – it would be as ludicrous as suggesting that adults invented the idea of girl germs and boy germs (or, for the Americans, cooties). Nor do children instinctively police each other along gender lines; certainly, Ben and I never did. But we are not raised in a vacuum, and if, from minute one of their lives, you call half the children Blue and the other half Pink; if you dress them differently, give them different toys, tell them different stories, praise them for different qualities, rebuke them for different transgressions, encourage them at different activities and actively enforce all these differences on the basis of gender (‘No, sweetie, that one’s for boys!’), then the inevitable consequence of sending them off to interact in an environment where, true to form, all the Pinks are wearing dresses and all the Blues are wearing shorts, is that even a fucking five-year-old will start to think that boys and girls talking is wrong.

Nobody has told them this explicitly.

Nobody has had to.

Writing about this week’s controversy over gay characters being removed from YA novels (excellent summations of which can be found here and here), author N. K. Jemisin says, “As many have pointed out, we live in a world full of bigotry but no bigots. No one wants to claim their own little slice of the Contributing to the Problem pie, even though everyone should get a little.” Giving her keynote address at the recent Tights and Tiaras conference on female superheroes and media cultures, author Karen Healey talked about the cultural reasons why women who otherwise love SF, fantasy, comics, fanfiction and superheroes end up steering clear of mainstream superhero comics and comic stores – specifically, about the idea that the prevalence of sexism and objectification of women at the level of both the narratives of said comics and the creative processes which create them are, not surprisingly, offputting to female readers.  And at the end of last year, an American mother blogged about what happened when her five-year-old son dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween; how other mothers attacked her for it, saying that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – and will keep saying it forever, because it will never cease to be true: we are all a product of culture. Five-year-old children experience discrimination from parents, from their peers and from society –  because they’re boys who dress like girls, because they’re girls who want to be friends with boys, because they have the temerity to be different – but when the question of why comes up, we never consider that all those seemingly innocuous things like toy choice and clothing colours and storybooks might have something to do with it; that when you pile up all the individual molehills of culture, the end result really is a mountain. Most of us were raised this way, and we continue to raise more children along the same lines – because what’s wrong with girls being girls and boys being boys? Children are just like that. Well, of course they are, if that’s how you insist on raising them. And then those children grow up into teenagers, the primary demographic for so much of our culture, and while many of them are increasingly savvy about the subtleties of the gender biases that govern their existence, many more aren’t; and that means that they don’t question cultural output whose tropes are reflective of those biases. And after all, why would they be? Isn’t the world just like that? Well, of course it is, if nobody tries to make it otherwise.

And then publishing companies and advertising agencies and Hollywood and every other organisation who sells things for a living looks at the buying habits of the general, youthful populace says, It’s not that we’re bigoted, but books about gay teenagers don’t sell and neither do comic books where the women aren’t sexualised or films where the leads aren’t white. And I’m sick of it, because if all the excuse-mongering about demographics and target audiences by people who should know better is to be believed, then the whole of Western creative industry is made up exclusively of lovely, unbigoted people who are the friends of other lovely, unbigoted people forced by circumstances beyond their control to make books and films and comics and toys along bigoted lines, because apparently the entire creative monopoly of unbigoted editors, writers, agents, artists, filmmakers and producers constitutes such a powerless minority voice that they couldn’t possibly hope to change the standards they purport to hate, and anyway, it’s not like they’re in charge of our culture – oh, wait, it is.

The moral of this story is: don’t take culture for granted, because if there’s one thing it exists to do, it’s change. Our whole society is Theseus’ Ship, and the sooner we realise our collective power to tear down broken parts and replace them with things that work, the better. Especially those of us who tell stories; and doubly for those of us who tell stories to children and teenagers. To quote the Witch from Into the Woods:

Careful the things you say; children will listen. 

 

 

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

Look: I have issues with the whole high school thing.

These issues are wide-ranging. They involve mundane, unintelligent and generally backward curricula, antiquated teaching methodologies, the negligent pay scales for teachers, the lack of reward and prestige for education as a profession, the bastardisation of learning into something that is neither relevant to grades nor recommended that teachers embrace in their own lives, the structure of a system that creates year levels on the basis of age rather than ability, the general social malaise of throwing a whole bunch of teenagers in the same deep pool and yelling SWIM!, the generational incomprehension of techonological and social media as an advanced medium of bullying –

OK. I could go on.

You get that.

But here’s the thing:

High school fucking sucks, man.

We all know it.

Every teenager knows it.

Most adults with actual memories of their high school years, no matter how rosy-lensed, can acknowledge it.

And yet our ability to change that system? Even in the smallest ways?

Is seemingly non-existent.

I have cared about the shitness of high school since I was thirteen. That was eleven damn years ago, and I am still howling into a void. In abstract, it should help my case that so many things are so obviously wrong with the system. In the Land of Government and Educational Bureaucracy, however, that’s actually a massive hindrance, because in a society where ripping a major institution down, salting the earth and building afresh is less an option than it is political suicide, there’s no obvious starting point for reform.

And so people do next to nothing.

Because it’s easy.

Because there’s no viable mechanism in place for doing more.

Because optimism with regard to educational reform is seen as naivety.

Because making things better is too fucking hard.

Well, you know what? I’m sick of that excuse.

I am sick of people whose jobs it supposedly is to support and create a culture of knowledge saying that teenagers and their problems are just too hard; that poverty, cruetly, violence and bullying are just too hard; that creating curricula that are relevant, engaging and intelligent is just too hard; that basically doing anything with anyone between the ages of twelve and nineteen that might be of any use to their future selves or lives beyond the most basic social interactions, arithmetic and language skills – and sometimes not even that – is too hard; that spending money on schools and technology is too hard; that talking to actual teenagers about the circumstances of their education is not only too hard, but impossible, because they can’t be trusted to tell the truth, and everyone knows they just hate high school anyway.

Well, here’s a goddam radical thought: maybe high school is worth hating.

I am sick of homophobia and bullying.

I am sick of a system that seems to be based entirely on Lord of the Flies being a valid basis for social hierarchy.

Years of insomnia. Years of random cruetly, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, violence and ignorance. Years of hearing that at some point, every bright, funny, clever or caring person of my acquaintence had been found in the garage with a noose around their neck, standing on a chair and trying to knock themselves out by sniffing petrol fumes so they wouldn’t feel their hyoid break, or cutting themselves with scissors because it was the only sort of pain they could control, or drinking themselves insensible and weeping on school nights because they couldn’t function otherwise, or taking pills and curling up in the dark like Sylvia Plath, or walking along the edge of cliffs and daring themselves to jump off, or burrowing down inside themselves because it hurt like fury, like glass in the heart, and even the other downtrodden would mock them as protection against further mockery themselves. Years of waking up with less right to sick days than an underpaid temp worker, struggling through depression, illness, fear and uncertainty because you’d get a black mark if you dared show up without a doctor’s certificate, and nobody there to point out that colleges don’t give a flying fuck for your attendance record; that at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of laminated cardboard your parents keep in the attic, and not the be-all, end-all of your academic existence.

No. Fuck that noise, and fuck it sideways.

High school students of the world: you are not prisoners. You are not stupid. You have rights. You have opinions. You know what you feel. The rest of us have either forgotten or are in the process of forgetting, because where you are now? It’s about survival. Once you’re out of the jungle, you don’t go wading back in to fight the tigers and tame the lantana. But that’s why those things persist. You get out, and you’re safe, so you forget. You see the little tweaks and changes on the news, and you forget how bad it really was. You grow up. You start to doubt your teenage intelligence. You wonder if it was just because you were seventeen and an idiot that you hated your creepy geography teacher, the one who knocked the girls’ pens off their desks so he could peek down their shirts when they bent over to pick them up, or that you couldn’t find any practical or intellectual application for what you were asked to do, or that nobody would listen to you or had the power to do anything when you told them you were depressed or being bullied.

Fuck that.

Speak up.

Speak up, because your voices are the ones that matter.

All the debate about schools, about curricula, about subjects and bullying and sex and homophobia and ignorance and bad teaching – all of it affects you. More than anyone else, it affects you. But you are being left out, because you are students, and cannot be trusted to have intelligent opinions. Like prisoners, it is assumed that your sole goal is escape. Let’s slide right by the point where that comparison means many adults subconsciously think of schools and jails as being fundamentally the same, necessary-but-evil types of correctional institution. Yes, lots of teenagers are wankers. I know it, and so do you! If that weren’t true, then bullying wouldn’t be a problem. We would live in a candy-cane world of pixies and chocolate, and ride unicorns to school. Being a teenager doesn’t make you automatically right, either. We’re all still learning about life, after all. Personally, I maintain that any person who thinks they’ve reached a point where learning has become optional is (a) deluded and (b) most probably (see above) a wanker.

But here’s the secret: a lot of adults are wankers and/or wrong, too, and many of them have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. Perhaps more importantly, they have never had your teenage experience, and are therefore categorically unable to learn from it. There are also good adults in the world – adults who care, and try, and are nonetheless thwarted by a system that desires they do neither – and those adults deserve to be rewarded. But that cannot happen unless you stand up and make your opinions known.

So: right here, right now. Stand up.

This is what the internet is for.

Read. Learn. Protest. Rebel. Think. Question. Argue. Care.

The future is yours, and unless you do something about it? Continued suckage is a definite option.

Be clever. Be subervise. Be creative.

Fight back.

Not on their terms.

But on yours.

And win.

 

By way of introduction to what comes next, consider the following articles:

1. An in-depth examination of what makes a great teacher;

2. A renunciation of helicopter parenting;

3. The suspension of students after the online ‘bullying’ of a teacher;

4. A warning to teachers not to ‘friend’ students online for fear of said bullying; and

5. The Rate My Teachers website.

Are we all familiar with the relevant materials?

Good.

But before I begin, a relevant disclaimer:

I hated high school. Not to begin with, certainly, but by the end, I loathed it with a furious vengeance that would cheerfully have seen me set fire to the place. I went to two high schools, since you ask, both of them co-educational. The first was a public school; the second, private. I spent three years at each. It is important to note that my hatred does not stem from these differences, nor from a desire to have studied under a same-sex regime. In both instances, I had access to teachers who were engaged, intelligent, interesting and committed to my education. One school had more money and resources than the other, and when it came time to choose my final year subjects, that was certainly a boon, but it didn’t cancel out my hatred. Neither was I an indifferent student. By choice, I studied 14 units in Year 12, when the normal maximum was 13, and I continued to play school sport on the weekend when it was no longer mandatory. I even won a couple of prizes, at both a school and state level. I had friends, and boyfriends, and kind, loving, intelligent parents. I was bullied early on in school, but not in a way that dominated my life, and it wasn’t an issue after I turned 15. In short, I was a good student, the kind who cared about knowledge and who, despite the necessary teenage resentments and problems, wanted to do well. But I hated high school. I felt trapped there as I have never felt trapped before or since. I cried myself to sleep at night, those nights when I did sleep, because past the age of 15, my insomnia was all-encompassing. I was depressed, melancholy, self-hating, self-destructive, angry, a cutter, frustrated and, at times, near catatonic with helplessness. More than anything, I wanted to get out. And now I have, and there’s not a day goes by that I’m not grateful for having held on. But the outrage has never left me. High school, as is, is not a good place. In six years, I never met a bright student who hadn’t considered suicide at some point or other, an observation which has held true even when recalling those years among new adult acquaintances.  Think about that for a moment: a place supposedly dedicated to education where the majority of smart people end up wanting to kill themselves. The high school system is rotten. I remain convinced of this fact. Yes, it has its virtues. But I cannot bear to make myself their advocate. That is my bias, for now and for the foreseeable future. Be warned of it.

Are you up to speed?

Then let us begin.

*****

Of late, there has been a lot of furore about the problem of how to evaluate teachers. Educational unions are strong, and arguably with good reason, especially when one considers how little high school teachers are actually paid, and how miniscule their prospects of financial advancement. It is not a good status quo, and if it were possible to snap my fingers and eradicate the regrettable social assumption than teaching is a low-prestige job worthy only of a similarly low salary, I would gladly trade the flesh of my left hand to do so. But that is not the case: change is never so easy, particularly when it impinges on politics and tradition, and instead, we are stuck with the slow road. I am deeply sympathetic to the plight of underpaid teachers, harried educaters who work long hours for little recompense, dedicating their holidays to marking and the creation of lesson plans, struggling to earn a higher wage, and who find themselves thwarted by poor resourcing on behalf of their attendent governments. These are all problems which deserve redress, and soon.

But.

There is such a thing as a bad teacher. More to the point, there is such a thing as bad teachers, plural, meaning that they are among us, and many, and largely undetected. This is not a desierable situation. Nor is it easily fixed. I will not pretend that creating league tables to measure the performance of schools will automatically solve all the problems parents face when deciding where to send their children. The difference in resources available between the public and private systems is still mindboggling; and I should know, having been in a position to gauge it from both sides. But there is something obvious to the idea that good teachers make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and – correspondingly – that bad teachers can have the opposite effect. The problem, as in all subjective matters, lies in determining what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the context. Especially when endeavouring to craft new legislation, rather than merely supporting laws which already exist, the desire is to improve, adapt, mend: we see the problem, and therefore strive to fix it. But which person, or what body, has either the right or expertise to draw such a contentious line in the sand – to declare that X breed of teacher is good, while the practices of Y are intolerable?

As painful as it is to admit, there surely comes a point when we must pass such a judgement, not because we believe it to be inviolably true, but because we cannot rightfully function without some sort of acknowledgement that there is a judgement to be made at all, and what’s more, that it is worth making. Some teachers are better than others. In almost every other field of employ, we are willing to concede this point, and yet teaching remains a battleground. Elsewhere, the idea that good results be rewarded with higher pay is a logical sort of system, and one that some teachers, at least, are eager to embrace. But where to start? With all the accepted variances in syllabi, school resources and – though more controversial – the socio/economic data of particular school catchment areas, it seems intuitively wrongheaded to suppose that all teachers are striving towards greatness from a position of equal footing. How, therefore, might one reasonably craft the defining qualities of educational success, if the starting assumption denies that all teachers begin with a common set of resources and an equally well-equipped student populace? It is impossible; but then, if we look at the corporate sphere, nobody has ever claimed that all lawyers begin their careers with the same number and type of cases, or that all doctors must successfully diagnose from an equal pool of patients. In that sense, there is always going to be inequality: the point, however, is in trying to establish standards for success that transcend that fact in a visible majority of instances.

So: how do we go about evaluating the success of teachers? Grades, one assumes, must have something to do with it, although that is possibly the trickiest rubrick to establish, given the above concerns. Is there, then, an easier starting place? Yes, I would contend, and a fairly obvious one, though equally controversial. I can think of only two types of institution in our modern world where those in a position of authority are not noticably subject to the rights of those beneath them: prisons, and schools. In both instances, we believe the governed body to be too deeply invested in the dismantling of the whole system to bother with their opinions, not least because they are, by and large, resentful of being held somewhere against their will. But that does not mean abuses do not take place, and it certainly does not mean, in the case of students, that they are comparable to inmates: that is to say, innately untrustworthy by dint of sitting on the far side of the desk. Yes, there is a worry that students will play favourites; that they will lie about their teachers, and desire only the sort of cheerful mediocrity which allows them to misbehave with the least amount of stress. But one might just as easily say the same of junior employees, resentful of the power of their bosses and wanting only to be paid exhorbitantly for the minimum amount of work. Regardless of age, this is always the dichotomy, and while we might acknowledge that some teenagers will abuse the privilege, or else prove unequal to the task of articulating their discontent in an intelligible and useful manner, I am not convinced that adults are any more noble.

Out of curiosity, I looked up one of my old schools on the Rate My Teachers website. Yes, there were some purely pejorative comments in evidence, but otherwise, I found that my own recollections bore out in the assigned scores: teachers I recalled as outstanding were roundly praised, while those I remembered with less fondness were frowned upon. Given my disclaimer about the extent to which I hated high school, I might well be biased, but it seems as though teenagers aren’t as misguided in their perception of teachers as is commonly made out, no matter how poorly those perceptions might be expressed. Since leaving school, I’ve worked for at least one employer whose neuroses and general unpleasantness made my skin crawl, and nobody I complained to about it ever made me feel as though my powers of observation were somehow deficient. Bad bosses are part of the adult world: we accept their existence almost by default. But bad teachers are a different kettle of fish. Even when reminiscing as adults, with all the powers of hindsight at our disposal, there is often a sense that we are being unjust in our perceptions of former teachers; that somehow, we are letting childish emotions cloud our judgement, clinging on to age-old resentments rather than electing to grow up. Even though the only difference between criticising an employer and a teacher might be a few months – or nothing at all, for those who hold down jobs during school – we are automatically inclined to treat the former complaint with greater gravity.

Why? A simple thing: choice.

Suppose I’m working an awful job. Should things turn really nasty, I have the option of leaving. Any resentment I feel towards my employer may therefore be reasonably viewed in this context, and gauged with a modicum of objectivity, depending on the listener’s knowledge of my personality and quirks. But students do not have such a choice. Their resentment is established as a matter of fact, such that any attempt to increase it – say, by complaning about a teacher – does not seem any different from this perceived background level of discontent. More importantly, the fact remains that, even if the teacher is genuinely bad, there is little to be done about it. Changing schools for the sake of a single person is hardly common, and certainly not smiled upon; never mind the fact that changing schools at all is difficult. The idea that a teacher might be dismissed or even reprimanded because of any one student’s say-so is equally unlikely. But in a situation where there is no established means of acknowledging good teachers or weeding out bad even among the educational hierarchy, what hope does any student have of making a valid complaint?

I am not trying to wrap teenagers in cotton wool. As in the case of teachers, some are better than others, smarter than others, kinder or more enthusiastic or honest than others. That cannot be changed, and I do not want to implement some unrealistic, lovely-dovey system wherein all teachers strive for the approval and popular adoration of their pupils. But surely, there must be some way, some viable genesis, wherein students can evaluate their teachers and be heard within the bounds of a legitimate system, and not just by venting on an unauthorised website. Here’s an idea that plays to biases, and which might work for exactly that reason: what if we took note of the type of student complaining about a particular teacher? If they’re all friends from the same group, or possessed of similar personalities, then it seems reasonable to assume that the teacher is either being directly targeted, or that their method of teaching jars with that teen-type. But if the complaints are coming from diverse corners of the student body, or from the type of pupil who normally refrains from rocking the boat, then perhaps schools should sit up and take notice, if only to be sure that nothing is amiss.

If you consider that a teacher is but one person faced with twenty or thirty rebellious subjects, then the idea of students bullying educators becomes less absurd, no matter the balance of power. I am not saying that students should have carte blanche to make their teachers fear for their jobs, or to ridicule them, or any such thing. But the crucial element of bullying is power, and the effect it has on the injured party. Someone might try and tease me, for instance, but if I do not fear them – if they have no tangible ability to make my life worse, and if I genuinely do not care what they say – then they are not bullying me; they are only failing to do so. And perhaps, for the sake of the attempt, that failure should be met with reprimand. Perhaps. But where there are more concrete examples to be getting on with – people who do fear their persecutors, who care what is said about them, and whose lives can be made worse by those on the attack – then spending breath and effort berating what hasn’t happened seems like a waste of time. Thus, in reference to the current concerns of schools re the bullying of teachers – particularly, as in the case of Leeming SHS, of teachers who are themselves feared by their students – I entreat you: look where the power is. If students have no valid outlet to complain about their teachers, and if those teachers are behaving aggressively, then do not be surprised if the internet takes up your shortfall. Don’t go calling it bullying for the sake of effect, or because you think the students shouldn’t have bad opinions in the first place: be an adult, and maybe wonder whether or not such vociferous complaints have merit.

I’m almost done, here. I’m running out of words. The hour is late. I don’t have an overriding solution; only a few scraps. But, please: the things that are wrong with high school aren’t just due to teenage angst. There is something broken in the system – a deep, treacherous wound that cannot mend itself, and which few enough adults even acknowledge exists. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teenagers are not stupid. The lower your expectations for any group of people, the less likely they are to try and surprise you – why should they, when it doesn’t get them anywhere? We need to start thinking about how to make our schools better, and evaluating teachers is part of that. But until then, try and imagine what we can change. It’s the only way forward. And sooner or later, it’s where we’ll have to go.