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Month: June 2018

We must eradicate harassment from our schools

Were you surprised the recent Plan International survey on Sexism in the City showed that for most young women, experiences of street harassment are common?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re a bloke.

Because every woman I know has been catcalled, or followed on the street, or perhaps had a man lunge at her.

The first time I recall being sexually harassed in my community was when I was 12 years old, and just starting high school.

As I walked across a bridge with my friends, filled with nervous excitement about the new girls I might meet, and the stationery I had so carefully selected and packed in my shiny new sparkly pink pencil case, I noticed a man waiting under the bridge for us to pass.

He was masturbating in front of us.

I was so horrified that I ran straight to the local police station to report him. I’m not sure why the police never pursued this — although I do recall them laughing at me when they asked me what exactly I had seen him do and I replied, “wanking”; they hadn’t expected this ponytail-wearing schoolgirl to be quite so blunt. Their amusement only added to my feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

But “The Wanker”, as all the girls at my school soon named him, remained waiting for us each morning for months. And eventually it became a game to run past him, yelling out our disgust. Shockingly, it no longer shocked me.

For many girls, high schools are a place of learning and harassment. (Pic: iStock)

This was by no means an isolated incident. Plan International’s Report confirms that despite all the education campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, most young women first experience intimidation when in a public space between the ages of 11 and 15 (I sometimes wonder if the very same men who find it amusing to yell out “show us your tits” to school girls as they drive past them at bus stops are the same ones who rant on social media about how paedophiles should be castrated).

In my work as an educator of teen girls, I often hear stories about intimidation and harassment. And I hear the type of advice given to young women in order to help keep them safe, “walk in groups” “follow your instincts and move away if you feel unsafe …”

These offerings are not designed to make girls feel that they are somehow to blame for a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, nor to limit their freedoms. But rather because short-term, while we work to help change the type of culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, providing our girls with scripts and strategies for keeping them safe feels essential.

I’ve had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running our in-school courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions, not only had the girls known how to respond to stay safe, importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted. As one principal emailed: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.” Any protective advice given must be carefully framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

But our girls are not just being harassed on the streets.

I’ve had many conversations with teen girls who feel sexually harassed in their classrooms. There are boys who flick their bra straps, they tell me. Or sniff their seats when they get up to change classes. Boys who talk loudly about porn in graphic, violent detail. What guidance do we give then, when there is no moving away? When speaking to a trusted adult may mean the aggressor is removed from class for a day or so, but is likely to return?

Our schools must make a strong stance against all forms of harassment and be safe places.

How can this be achieved?

We urgently need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on issues like combating violence against women, and helping them unpack toxic masculinity — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. And she’s right, it isn’t fair.

And our schools must realise that in the age of #MeToo, discussions around sexual harassment are not theoretical for most young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/18 

‘I cried when my son told me he wants to be a teacher’

We’ve been bombarded with reports lately about how depressed and depleted educators are, so when my 16-year-old son recently announced he wanted to become a high school teacher when he graduates, I cried.

These weren’t tears of dismay, but rather of pride and happiness. Because I know that despite the seemingly endless piles of papers to mark, the ever-encroaching administration, and the increasingly challenging student (and parent) behaviours teachers are expected to manage, it remains an incredibly rewarding role.

And it’s high time we stopped trying to deter young people from the profession.

Bombarding those who aspire to be educators with tales of woe is nothing new. When I announced at the end of Year 12 that I wanted to study education, a number of the teachers I admired most, and who indeed had inspired me to want to shine in my own classroom, tried to talk me out of it. The pay is dreadful, they said; it can be thankless, they insisted.

Despite the naysayers, teaching can be an incredibly rewarding profession. (Pic: iStock)

Yet despite the doom and gloomers, I did teach in a government high school for five years. I was then promoted to running special programs for our most at risk kids in the Catholic education sector for a further six years, before setting up my own social enterprise aimed at creating more resilient teens.

After working alongside hundreds of teachers in a variety of schools, here’s what I will tell my son about the profession:

1. Teachers matter. For some young people, their teachers are the most constant and caring adults they know; they are the ones who will bring them a sandwich and discreetly give it to them before class, who will hear their dark stories about abuse or neglect and who will hold their hand through the process of seeking a way forward. Parenting expert and ex-teacher Maggie Dent shared with me why she loved her many years in the classroom, and still cheers those who aspire to teach on: “I loved being the bringer of hope for kids who had none.”

Even the students who you don’t think you’ve had any particular impact on may have been inspired by you in ways you may never know until when, many years later, they will stop you at the shops and gush about how some advice you gave, or encouragement you offered, helped shape their lives.

2. You will get to immerse yourself in a subject you love on a daily basis. And although it might at times feel incredibly frustrating that your Year 7 history class don’t quite share your passion for Ancient Rome, discovering how you can engage them in this will be almost as fascinating as the content itself.

Teachers can have a huge positive impact on the lives of their students. (Pic: iStock)

3. Watching young people grow and develop is a joy. Cheeky little lads become deep-voiced, thoughtful young men. Timid girls who blush red when they are asked to answer a question in class bloom into confident, articulate young women. You get the proud-parent style moments, without the laundry and messy bedrooms.

4. The skills you develop are highly transferable. While many teachers do make it their life’s work, those who later wish to explore a new vocation will find they are highly employable. I may have started my career as an English teacher at a high school in Blacktown, but since then I have founded my own company, become an author, a newspaper columnist, worked on television, and consulted to business. Maintain your own love for learning and you’ll go far.

Dr Natalie Ferres from management consultancy Bendelta agrees that while it’s vital we openly discuss the challenges our educators face, support those who are struggling, and be open to make system-wide changes, we must also not forget to celebrate the wins: “All we seem to hear in the media is the negative. Without tuning into those positive voices that say the intrinsic rewards outweigh the hardships, we run the risk of negative contagion through the profession. This social contagion is the spread of affect or behaviour from one source to another.”

What price might we pay for creating a culture of dismay? “The pervasiveness of negativity about being a teacher could repel top talent,” Ferres warns.

My son hasn’t always found learning easy, nor as he always liked school. Yet, thanks in no small part to the dedicated teachers he has been fortunate enough to have been taught by, he has decided school’s a place worth sticking around. He won’t always have A+ days at work (nor do any of us), but I also know it’s a profession worth passionately pursuing.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 16/6/18 

Dads are just as vital as mums for kids

Although it’s vital to support young men to make sense of images of sexuality that are largely devoid of meaningful relationships, and to encourage them to be mindful about how much time they spend online, when we work with boys in schools one of the topics that incites the most animated discussion is both much closer to home, and far less likely to usually be raised as worthy of discussion — parenting.

Perhaps there’s an assumption boys won’t be interested in exploring what it might mean to be a father. After all, as little boys they are far more likely to have been given an action figure to play with than a baby doll. TV tropes have long had us believe dads are a bunch of disinterested, bumbling slackers (from Fred Flintstone through to Homer Simpson).

And despite the rise of more dad-friendly commercials (an advertising trend known as “Dadvertising”) the vast majority of messages we receive about parenting still feature mothers as the nurturers and primary caregivers.

Member for Perth Tim Hammond with his wife Lindsay and seven-month-old son Tully in Bayswater after announcing he was resigning from parliament. (Pic: Rebecca Le May/AAP)

The reality is though that thankfully more men are choosing to defy convention and take a more active role in their children’s lives. Men like Labor MP Tim Hammond who resigned from Parliament this week by confessing, “I realise this is very unexpected news. But as much as I have tried desperately, I just cannot reconcile my life as a Federal Member of Parliament with being the father I need — and want — to be to my three children.”

And men like the fly-in fly-out miners in North Queensland who have recently signed up to “Hair 101 For Dads”, a workshop being run by to help fathers learn how to do their daughter’s hair. Lucas Vidler, a coal miner, told local news reporter Zarisha Bradley, that as he is away working for six months ever year, when he’s home he wants to be as involved as possible: “A lot of dads don’t know how to do hair and often we have to do the (school) drop-offs…(in the past) I’ve dropped my daughter off with some pretty average hair.”

For those young lads who don’t have a father present in their lives, opportunities to connect with good dads are particularly valuable. Earlier this year a pastor in Dallas, Donald Parish Jr., put out a plea on Facebook for men who could act as male mentors for the students who didn’t have a dad to bring to the High School’s “Breakfast with Dads” event. “We know that the majority of our students were not going to have dads present,” Parish told USA Today. “Many students don’t have any males figures around, or at least the kind who would show up for a school event like this.”

Marcus Obermeder learns to braid the hair of his daughter Annabelle, 5 with some help from Leigh Dole at Blow Bar in Waverley. (Pic: John Appleyard)

The school had hoped for 50 fathers. On the morning of the event, 600 fathers, uncles and grandfathers lined up to help out. One of the volunteers, Assistant Chief of Police Jason Rodriguez, took to Twitter afterwards to share how moved he was being involved, “Powerful to see a community of fellow men and fathers come together to wrap their arms around or (sic) young men.”

I saw how life-changing it can be for young men to be connected to positive father-figures first hand at the conclusion of a mentoring program I once co-ordinated for young people at risk.

I asked one of the teen participants what he’d most enjoyed about the six months he spent working alongside a plumber, Paul, who had acted as his mentor. I had expected this lad might mention some of the construction projects I knew they had worked on together, but his reply was far more poignant.

He said, “Every morning we’d get in the van and first drop off Paul’s son to the lady who would mind him. Paul would get his son out of the car seat so carefully and talk to him so kindly. He’d kiss his baby goodbye and tell him how much he loved him.”

“I’d never seen a man do anything like that before”, he continued, “and I want to be that man too one day.”

When boys grow up to become involved dads, everyone wins.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 5/5/18

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