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The High School Formal advice every girl needs

Mid-November marks the beginning of the high school formals; a time that is less a celebration, and more a season of discontent.

Because along with all the spray tans, fancy frocks and stretch limos comes a swag of advice for girls that ranges from well intentioned but misguided, to outright dangerous.

The date

What’s the one question that sends many a single girl into a panic? “Who are you taking to the formal?”

It’s 2018. Surely we’ve moved beyond pressuring young women to find an attractive man-bag to hang off their arms.

When I supervised formals back in my teaching days, I always felt sorry for the poor lads who had been dragged out for these events, and were then all but ignored once they had performed their obligatory photo duties. I felt sorry too for the girls I knew would look back at pictures from the night and cringe when they saw who they went with just because they felt pressured to pair up.

Let’s encourage more solo operators. As sassy singles, our daughters will be able to enjoy the company of their schoolmates and celebrate all their in-jokes together one last time (which is, after all, what an end-of-school formal is supposed to be about).

Teenage girls shouldn’t have to take a date to their formal. Picture: supplied

The dress

In the lead-up to formal, a girl’s list of what she needs for the big night can become the teen equivalent of a bridezilla’s: the right designer dress (actually, two dresses, one for the formal, another for the after-party), jewellery, handbag and shoes, professional hair and make-up, tanning, waxing, and sufficiently glamorous transport to get them there. The total cost is generally well over a thousand dollars.

At one high school, a girl bragged to me that her mother had flown her to Paris to buy her formal dress. I was speechless when, in the next breath, she revealed that there was a down side: as it was a Parisian label, only diehard fashionistas would know the designer, so she would have to explain to the other girls how prestigious her dress was (surely the very definition of a first world problem).

But it’s not just the finances that take a hit. For many girls, the angst over what to wear not only drives them to scrutinise their bodies, but seems to provide an open invitation for others to critique them as well.

I recently heard of a school that had teachers run a seminar for their girls on which colours might best suit them, and on which styles would prove most flattering.

Yet much of the information presented actually focused on how the girls should cover their flaws.

Some teens are spending a fortune on dresses, grooming, professional makeup, accessories and transport for their formals. Picture: Supplied.

One teen girl who swims competitively was told her shoulders would need to be disguised (she hadn’t been aware her strong arms were considered unattractive until this was pointed out in front of her peers).

Another was told that despite being larger, she could still achieve an hourglass figure with the right garment choices.

We mustn’t spend six years telling our girls they should never be defined by their looks, only to encourage them to conform to narrow standards of beauty once they reach the finish line.

The diet

The lead up to formal season is peak dieting time for teen girls with many going to extreme measures to lose weight rapidly, including starving themselves, purging and using laxatives.

Jade, 19, says her battle with anorexia began after she made the decision to drop a dress size for her formal: “But on the night of the event, I’d lost so much weight that my dress just hung off me. I spent the night anxious, scared and hungry. And I stayed that way for years afterwards.”

Let’s not ruin this milestone in our girls lives by offering them anything other than words of affirmation — and the tools they need to critique marketing messages and beauty myths that don’t serve them.

It is a big night; yet only one of the many they’ll have in their diverse, sparkling lives.

 

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph 17/11/18 

‘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 

Club 21, “girl world” exposed: binge drinking, bullying, low self esteem and distorted body image.

AND the importance of moving beyond finger pointing.

Queensland school girls have formed an exclusive club, known as Club 21, which encourages members to be ranked between 1 and 21 based on their thinness, good looks, binge drinking escapades and popularity with boys. This number is then drawn on their hand for all to see.

The club not only operates at St Patrick’s Mackay, but has gone global via the internet and chat rooms.

This story has caused significant shock in the media. However it is unlikely this type of bullying – of each other and those who didn’t make it into the club – came as a shock to many teen girls. It was likely no surprise to their teachers either, who witness the various manifestations of the “Compare and Despair” game that teen girls are so good at playing, in playgrounds right across Australia. Recent studies show three out of five teen girls report being teased about their appearance at school. Girls in particular judge themselves and each other on how they look and on how popular they are bohabbo143v2.jpgth with other girls, and with boys.

When I was a teen girl at high school much of lunch time was spent rating our peers. It was our own little real life version of the magazines we grew up with that asked us, in virtually every issue, to decide whether particular clothes were in, or whether a celebrity was hot or not. We felt powerful playing these games – we may not have been able to control many elements of our lives, but we tried to control how we looked through diets, and we could definitely control each other through ridicule.

We may not have had a number reflecting these scores branded on our hands, but the scores were branded on our psyches.

The rules in girl rating games, both then and now, are not difficult to follow. Be considered hot by your peers and in particular by boys – and score points. Getting a highly desired boyfriend means an instant advance to the top of the club. I was lucky enough to have landed the school “spunk” at one stage and was elevated from classroom “brainiac” to the girl everyone wanted to know almost over night. He dumped me a year later for a girl considered even hotter – at just 14 she was already a model appearing in women’s magazines and parading in labels sold only to rich thirty-somethings. My dream run at the top of the charts was destroyed.

What makes this latest story of highly organised girl competiveness newsworthy is the use of technology to spread the ranks.

In my early years as a teacher in High Schools, I found it relatively easy to intercept notes critiquing other girls. Technology means these same messages can now can reach thousands of recipients in moments. Harmful messages found on toilet walls could be scrubbed off – it is much more difficult to delete messages once they have gone global.

The potential for misuse of the cyber world is alarming. But we cannot blame the internet alone. It is after all merely a tool, it is all too easy to blame the evils of technology rather than examining why our society has become more and more toxic for our young people.

Just why has girl self hatred gone mainstream and global?

Years of watching reality TV and being invited to rank contestants and evict / put below the yellow line / vote off those not entertaining enough or thin enough or sexy enough to keep us interested have no doubt played a role. And if Paris can get famous for being rich, thin and for sleeping around why can’t they? Elements of the media have been most hypocritical in their reporting of this incident. They have judged these girls harshly when these young women have really only responded to the fodder they have been fed by these same image obsessed magazines; magazines that perpetuate the misconception that success is dependent largely on appearances and sexual desirability.

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This incident is also a sad reflection of a society that makes our girls feel lonely. When they cannot find real connection at school, or at home, they look for it in cyber world and find all their deepest and darkest fears and fantasies fed on sites that promote eating disorders as a lifestyle choice, sites celebrating images of “girls gone wild” trashed and flashing their breasts at parties.

The reality is many women play this same compare and despair game too. Studies have shown that while up to 65per cent of teenage girls think they are less beautiful than the average girl, 84 per cent of women over 40 think they are less beautiful than the average woman. A survey released by the Australian Women’s Weekly just this week found that only one in six women were happy with their weight, one in five had such a poor body image they avoided mirrors and 45 per cent would have cosmetic surgery if they could afford it. Binge drinking appeared to be rife too, with a third of the women surveyed drinking too much and one in five women admitting she had been told she had a drinking problem.

As grown up women we no longer rank ourselves from 1-21 but many of us do get up in the morning and let the number that flashes up on our scales dictate our mood for the day.

Many of us tell our daughters they do not need to change in order to be beautiful while we rush for botox. We tell them inner beauty counts whilst we invest in plastic surgery and devour magazines that tell us that it is really only about air brushed perfection after all.

We may saddened by Club 21, but why are we shocked? Girls cannot be what they cannot see. If even the grown up girls are comparing and despairing, is it any wonder that our daughters do not know what “I am me, I am ok” looks like?

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Let’s not blame the victims here. After all, these are young girls – pushing boundaries, exploring and making mistakes. We shouldn’t fall into the easy trap of simply making these girls out to be uber bitches. Rather, they are a sad reflection of the times. We need to dig a little deeper and address the toxic messages our girls are fed and ensure these are countered with positive body image programs and messages of strength and resilience.

News flash! With the upgrades to Edublog, I can now upload the audio of an interview I did with Prue McSween on this topic. Enjoy!

  Click to listen – Dannielle Miller and Prue McSween on cyber bullying and Club 21, Radio 2UE. mp3

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