‘Just ignore him, he was just being gay’, my sister re-enacts the teacher’s response to me in her usual impression voices and animated style. I choke on my drink, ‘…What? The teacher said that?…’ I bite down hard on my lip and screw up my then teenage face in disgust. I’m angry at first and then a sink into a disappointment and simmer there a while saying nothing. My sister’s used to my I am disappointed with that teacher look.
Some role model this teacher is… A literature teacher as well! If anyone is meant to understand what power and affect words can have, particularly on young people, an English teacher should. I wish I could grab them by the scruff of their shirt, give them a shake and tell them all this. I wish I knew how to challenge their comment because it is a comment that is wrong. Listen to me – I’d say – you might well be a teacher but what you’ve just said is wrong. You need to listen to me because what I am saying is not trivial in the slightest, it is important, you need to let me teach you why.
This was all just a tiny snippet of a story that was relayed to me by my younger sister, who also went to the same school, when I was around seventeen. Oh, but how I wished I was gutsy enough to challenge a teacher when I heard both homophobic and sexist language and ideas relayed to me from their blaring megaphone mouths.
Whilst such comments or language was not rife at school it was common place enough for me to have rolled them over in my mind, studying them closely when at first they happened. And they have had influence me enough in my life that I have considered these moments to such an extent that I am considering them again years on from the events now at the age of twenty-three, blogging about it, sat here at a table, hundreds of miles from the rooms and corridors I heard the words. If that’s not impact and influence on a youth’s formative years then I don’t know what is quite frankly.
I want to explain that what I am to write does not imply that some of my teachers were homophobes, understood as people with a hatred or fear or violence against gay or bisexual individuals, nor were they misogynists, with a hatred of women (that I know of!) but what I am exposing, with great certainty, is that many of them replicated language or ideas that were and continue to be (which is the most damaging part, the part I wish to change in some way) damaging to lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals and also girls and women, regardless of whether that was their intention or not.
“Girls, those skirts are too short, you need to be careful – there are male teachers around!” Again my sister recounts the story of what a certain teacher has been over-heard saying in the corridor. Ah, yes, of course. It’s perfectly acceptable for middle aged male teachers to be enticed by a gorgeously curved teenage thigh, how silly of me to think otherwise…
Not only did that comment from this teacher point towards implications of paedophilia but it points to upholding a sexualisation of women’s, and in this case, young girl’s bodies beyond their own control. Additionally it promotes a notion that will now have been ingrained in those girls (who will now be young women may I point out) that women need to be guarding their body which, beyond their control, is read as a sex object by the opposite sex and if they do not do so this is scandalous and it is something that they entirely should make it their responsibility to do.
All of this was only made the worse because it came from the mouth of a female teacher. For a woman to replicate and strengthen a sexism, verging on violence by allusion, towards the students under her care is foolish if foolish ever happened but where it is particularly strengthened is because of the power dynamic of a teacher-pupil relationship.
It is not unduly harsh to ask that teachers consider what they say before they open their mouth. Or to ask them to challenge what prejudices, pre-conceived ideas, or attitudes they hold and replicate, regardless of whether or not they are commonly replicated in wider society.
I write all this not because I have a disliking for teachers or the teaching professions at all. It is a profession that commands my respect and I have a concern for it (another blog for another time perhaps!) I am currently working for a charity hat supports students who are in Higher Education, I couldn’t care more about education. But I do write this because I have much hope, belief, faith and respect for the good that teachers can do.
Teachers cannot ask their students to practice critical thinking, any sort of criticism, dissection or commentary if they themselves do not apply this to their positioning as teacher and their own ideas that they advocate and promote. Whether teachers like it or not both the curriculum and beyond it that enters the classroom are ideas that you promote and are often complicit in. I found only one or two teachers in my time that were subversive in the study of their subject challenging things from monarchy to Conservative politics and I found even fewer teachers who challenged, not the content of their subject, but the language of sexism and homophobia within not only their classroom but within their earshot.
It occurred to me that there are those teachers who understand the power and influence they wield whilst they are performing the role of teacher to their students and there are those who do not, who cannot, who struggle in that, or worse, they use that power dynamic in a way that is damaging because it amplifies and upholds warped ideas of women as not equals to men and of homosexuality as a bad and negative thing. None of these things are forgiveable, but they are some that I pray upon illumination can be learnt from.
I spoke a little bit about the curriculum, but this is really important – the power dynamic that a teacher holds over their students does not diminish when they are in this vague grey area of not explicitly teaching something as guided by the curriculum. If you are a teacher chatting to me about what you did at the weekend, making a comment on popular culture, or I over hear a conversation you have with an adult in the corridor I’m still bound by the relationship of student-teacher that we inhabit. Whilst you are my teacher you will always hold this power dynamic with me, you need to think on that responsibility and be conscious of it. Always. Some students are always listening. That’s me, I was always listening and the more I listened the more you hurt me I found.
Understand the power dynamic between a teacher and a student much like a sword swung by the teacher. Students pay attention to the sword, it swings as the teacher teaches. We are told to respect, to listen, to digest, to think, but at the same time we are also told to obey, to believe in the authority of the teacher’s voice and the mouth it is coming from and in a lot of teaching styles we are taught not to challenge it. The sword, the authority of the teacher’s voice, however, has magnificent power to challenge inequality and prejudice within the classroom without even once expressing the teacher’s personal opinion (this is an observation I touched upon in a previous blog).
The sword can be a great, wondrous thing. But it can also be dangerous, harmful and give wounds that bear scars as it cuts into young women and LGBT students wittingly or unwittingly (which is worse)? It is entirely irrelevant to me whether you expressed the replication of those ideas inside or outside the classroom, or in formal teaching hours or not. You will always, to me, your student, swing the sword with great authority and weight behind it which is harder for me, a seventeen-year-old teenager to question, to challenge, to spar with or reject. Think on that, think on that always.
I never said that carrying that sword was easy or even that you wittingly chose to do it but regardless of this it is your responsibility, rise to it. To be a teacher is to wear power. And please do not think that I learn from you only when you teach me about the Russian Revolution, or Mitosis, or Pythagoras’ theorem, or the correct moment after a ball has been pitched to swing my bat. You undersell yourself entirely to tell yourself you only teach me this, you teach me so much more, you teach me about society.
To seventeen you old me you are not just my teacher and I understand that as only a small fraction of your identity (as if your sole relationship with me was just to drag me through the curriculum!) Think about all the possibilities you are to me. Growing up my family circle was extremely small I had no aunts or uncles in the country and my family were, actually when I reflect on it, quite quiet and anti-social, rather removed and reserved. So when I thought of adults as a child and as a teenager I thought only of my parents and of my teachers. This is not all too uncommon for a child to think first of these adults of authority in their lives. You are a part of the tiny pool of adults I spent my time around and admired until you hurt me. You were a glimpse into a wider society beyond my home-town and the tiny pool of adults I’d grown accustomed to.
To the teachers who change my life, who challenged me, who empowered me (my favourites), who encouraged me and who understood me as more than just my grades, thank you. To the teachers who replicated sexist and homophobic ideas and language, I wish I could explain how you’ve hurt me, not just me but anyone who is a woman or gay, or bisexual. You’ve done the opposite of what I’d like to think was your mission of supporting the development of young people, all young people, not just the convenient or usually supported ones. Because I left school with good grades and went to a ‘good University’ does not mean that you did not fail me and my development.
You failed me because you are part of the reason I grew up with knocked confidence as a woman, but as a gay woman. And a lot of the ideas I had formed when I left school, informed by a culture replicated through my teachers, took a lot of years to unpick and unravel, dissect and dig up. We’re not the only ones, I hear the teachers cry, you are not the only ones who created this culture, I know. You are not the only ones who replicate sexist and homophobic language, but I don’t care, as if that excuses you. You are ones who matter more than others.
You matter more than others, wear that with pride, use it for good. I’ve not given up on you. Go, do great work and if you’ve done some wrongs tomorrow is as great a day as any to right them.