I wrote this in 1995 when I was Teaching Public School
It’s a scene found on most school playgrounds. A boy, undersize for his age, gets shoved to the ground as he jostles for a loose basketball. I intervene in the name of fairness and one of my male Grade 6 students comments, “It’s like the woods, Mr. D., the strongest survive”, as he dribbles away eager to continue the game.
In that 11 year old’s summation of an abusive incident lies an accurate analysis of how boys are socialized from a very young age to be tough, in control and aggressive. These sex role expectations are even found in boy’s comic books. The following is an ad for video games appeared on the back cover of a Superman comic I “borrowed” from a student that was supposed to be doing Math.
“Pick A Fight After School”, “After a hard day at school, have you ever just wanted to go home and break a few heads, destroy a couple of cities? Or just blow up the entire universe? Of course you have. And now you can without getting grounded. Just plug in any of these four smash arcade hits….. and get ready for the fight of your life.”
What influences the minds of children today is overwhelming. My students will watch, on average, 22 hours of television per week, including 8,000 violent deaths and 100,000 acts of violence by the time they leave grade 6. Based on time alone (not to mention stimulation effect) the entertainment industry has become the first curriculum in young peoples lives. It’s a fantasy world where the powerful survive and the heroes are The Terminator and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
As we look at these and other dominate influences it should come as no surprise that four students in the last two years have brought guns to schools in metro Halifax. It should also come as no surprise that they were all male.
This fact disturbs me. As a teacher and a member of Men For Change, a Halifax based men’s group that formed after the Montréal Massacre, I have begun to look at what I, as man, can do to end violence. This exploration led me to work with other members of Men For Change to develop Healthy Relationships: A Violence-Prevention Curriculum.
Healthy Relationships is being eagerly received across Canada by teachers and school boards that are looking beyond punitive measures like the Young Offenders Act to prevent violence. The program is designed as a teacher’s resource and the activities help students explore the nature of aggression and to question how sexist stereotypes are learned. When we understand the roots of violence we can teach a lifetime of skills and attitudes to our students.
If sexism is learned and violence is one manifestation then our schools are one of the best places to help children learn healthy attitudes. One immediate challenge for me as a classroom teacher is to look at my own attitudes towards gender. Do I really answer boys hands more than girls, as the research suggests? Do I refer to a room full of boys and girls with the popular but exclusive term, “guys?”
The potential of any school to help children learn healthy attitudes towards gender can be inhibited me, or any other teacher, unknowingly passing on sexist and stereotype loaded expectations to boys and girls.
The following examples are gathered from my experiences in other schools. They are hopefully exceptions to the rule, but each bear witness to how teachers unknowingly legitimize male stereotypes and it’s violent practise.
One morning I was in a Junior High School making photocopies prior to a workshop when a Grade 9 student came into the building to seek refuge from others who had just punched him in the chest and kicked him. The duty teacher responded, ” You’re a big guy, why don’t you stand up for yourself?”
The student stated simply, “I don’t fight”. The teacher then sent him back out to tell the perpetrators to come in. As my own students would say, Duh!! Not only was that young man’s need for safety ignored but I had a strong sense that nothing would be resolved even if his assaults got suspended for a few days. My sense that the problem was not truly resolved was confirmed. I met the victimized student half an hour later in the washroom cleaning up the blood from a punch in the nose he had just received.
Sometimes the messages to live up to the tough male image come out through subtle comments. I was in another school where a grade 9 class teacher was welcoming students for the afternoon. A student asked the teacher for a bandaid for a cut on his hand. The teacher obliged and commented, “I guess you lost that on huh! What’s the matter couldn’t you stand up to him?”
One of Men For Change’s first school workshop experiences several years ago was with a class of Grade 8 boys. We had a good dialogue about being macho, stereotypes and date rape. The discussion wrapped up10 minutes before the bell so the teacher hit play on the VCR with a Hockey’s Hardest Hitters Vol.1 tape.
These anecdotes from the front lines may not be very pleasant to read at a time when teachers seem to be undervalued and stressed out but lets not forget the teachable moment here for all of us. As in all social change movements, from the successful Teens Against Drunk Driving programs to anti-Racism objectives, the first step begins with an awareness of the breadth of the problem. In a society where violence is rampant, profitable and embodied as the very essence of what it means to act like a man this means revealing some deep roots and traditions, and perhaps even our own attitudes, before we can begin to see everlasting solutions.
We need to all work together and challenge the deeply ingrained illusion that can lock us into the gender trap of stereotypes––tough and aggressive for boys, passive and beauty bound, for girls. Then and only then will we be helping teach our students, and ourselves, not the law of the jungle where only the strongest survive, but rather the choices needed to build healthy relationships based on cooperation and trust where everyone is thrives.