schools

Image difference

The longer I work in a secondary school, the more I realise how much the public image of a school matters. I’m really fascinated at how diversity fits with a schools image. Many schools report they ‘value diversity’ or ‘celebrate diversity’. More often than not they mean cultural diversity, actually I would say almost exclusively (thanks to the New Zealand Curriculum statement) diversity really just means ethnicity. But this is where things get interesting and a little perplexing.

Alongside this schools are charged with supporting young people to develop a strong sense of their identity. Again this seems on the surface to be just fine, except when other forms of diversity start to ‘contaminate’ the pristine, clean cultural definitions. This is the most popular image used in school advertising across the county, a picture of smiling faces of various ethnicities. For simplification, the rhetoric goes something like this:

  • We love diversity – so you need to all wear a uniform, and wear the correct one for your assigned sex, oh and no other outward signs of individuality like piercings or hair colour, style, length…but we want you to be yourself.
  • We celebrate diversity – but not pride week, no you can’t have an LGBTQ+ group – people might object and that would make the school look bad. But we will do pink shirt day because being anti-bullying looks good for our image.
  • We value diversity – but let’s make sure students with unique needs are siloed off so they don’t disrupt the learning of others.
  • We are inclusive of diversity – but our common room isn’t accessible.
  • We encourage diversity – so long as you’re not failing NCEA and making our stats look bad.
  • We welcome diversity – but we are a single sex school so you have to have the right body parts to attend.
  • We embrace diversity – so long as you manage your anger, fear, sadness and frustration and behave the same as everyone else.
  • We recognise diversity – but if you are bullied for being transgender this might not be the school for you, you’re asking for special treatment and it’s just too hard for us to adapt to the 21st Century, bathrooms have always been this way, actually we’d prefer not to know you exist at all.
  • We support diversity – only if you behave in ways that keep everyone comfortable, so don’t be too gay…
  • Basically – we accept diversity – so long as you’re not different.

None of this is ever blatant, it is a quiet dismissive attitude, an omission in policy, an intentional avoidance, an awkward silence, or a flustered defensiveness. Because schools are now brands with an image to uphold (sounds a bit like political parties). Diversity is messy and complex and while education is locked into the neo-liberal politics of advanced capitalism, a schools image will often be prioritised at the expense of a fuller definition and recognition of diversity.

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Joining the dots

I’ve been following the NZ herald series on suicide, not closely, working as a school counsellor gives me some insight to the phenomenon but I am always cautious about my own understanding, even with close to 15yrs experience. But the Herald series is a bit like throwing out a series of dots from which people can join to form a picture. Here is where I’m a little unsure just which dots are standing out, how they are being joined and what picture/s are emerging. It’s tragic, compelling, emotive and unfortunately political. The dots could be seen as key ideas, some backed by research, others personal experiences, experts like (Sir) Peter Gluckman are mixed in with Mike King. Much like a join the dots activity I did as a kid, if there are just a few dots they have to be joined carefully and in the correct order to get the picture, more dots gives more detail. Sometimes you didn’t need to see the numbers to join them correctly – but at other times connecting the 2 with 8 really threw things off and you got a duck instead of a bunny. And this is where I think some of the discussion on suicide has gone – into duckbunny land.

I’ve read Gluckman’s report, it’s worth reading but how many people will actually bother to pick up his dots? He suggests the key work needs to be done much earlier than secondary schools, but also that adolescents is a vulnerable period regardless. There is a link between communities that have a low sense of worth, less hope for a future. I am saddened at the risk for Maori and other communities such as LGBTQI+ youth, this is where I think schools continue to ignore the dots and avoid responsibility for creating safe, genuinely inclusive (including bi-cultural values) environments. When principals deny queer young people safe places to meet (i.e. not allowing students to form gay-straight alliances), be valued members of the community– they increase risk. When schools fail to provide trained, qualified counsellors because pastoral care is not seen as valued – risk increases.

You see a couple of dots that people keep ignoring or leaving off the page, is the spike in suicide with the rolling out of ‘Tomorrows Schools’ when secondary schools could opt to not have counsellors in favour of the rather vague idea of ‘providing adequate guidance’ – and there are so many weird, vague interpretations of this. Key also is the gradual rising of the school leaving age, with university entrance now requiring completing level 3 (7th form for old school people). So if a young person is able to consent to their own medical treatment at 16, surely we should be enabling them to access mental health support as well, and schools that do not employ trained counsellors deny young people a potential lifeline.

Because every day, I talk to young people who have lost hope, who feel adults they have turned to have freaked out, got angry, dismissed, not believed them or blamed them for what is going on. They have thought about suicide, might be ready to die, but they somehow managed to get to my office. They aren’t making this shit up, they are survivors of bullying, sexual abuse, rape, family violence, they are from all cultures, they are LGBTQI+ and they had a free resource available, a fence at the top of the cliff – a trained, qualified, professionally affiliated counsellor.

It’s election year though, so I say this to all politicians – Stop ignoring these dots because they do not fit your convenient picture. Make a commitment to resourcing schools and agencies at the coal face of this work. Stop political point scoring around education, especially with vulnerable populations. No more dots are needed, just draw the lines FFS.

Choice Uniform

Ok, its been a while since I blogged and I am probably going to piss people off or take the warm fuzzy glow off something that most people are seeing as a move in the right direction when it comes to enabling flexibility of gender expression in schools. My Facebook feed went crazy a few days ago with the story of the Dunedin intermediate school that was eliminating gendered uniforms. This move is seen as revolutionary, some sort of highland fling needs doing as kilts and skirts blend boys and girls in a new gender neutral utopia that allows students to freely express themselves.

I want to be excited ‘yay’. I want to be optimistic ‘maybe other schools will do it now’, I want to be supportive ‘it’s important’. Right, now that I’ve got that out of the way – time to get realistic and bit more critical for the sake of actual change. So stop reading now if you want the warm fuzzy version.

Has this school actually done anything earth shattering? No. They are talking about adding long pants as an option and culottes, which are about as functional as stubbies. If guys choose to wear a kilt…it’s a kilt, not a skirt…duh. This is the same as wearing any other form of cultural dress. Get guys in culottes and then I’ll be impressed.

There is no such thing as gender neutral – because neutral is masculinised – pants or shorts. So what we are talking about is not feminising or enabling feminine expression. KILTS ARE NOT SKIRTS!

It is an intermediate – these are still ‘kids’ – show me a high school – or better a single sex school that does this and I will be convinced, more so if it’s a boys school.

If people think students now have ‘freedom’ to choose – think again, the gender norms still apply and when boys can grow their hair long, girls can cut theirs short and not shave their legs and it be ok – THAT is the other uniform rule that has to be broken. When a girl can wear short hair and not be asked if she is a boy or a girl that will be the sign of change.

Finally – a truly radical move from schools in New Zealand these days is to NOT have a uniform. I went through primary and intermediate without a uniform, I think I am ok as a result. Show me a school that moves from uniform to no uniform and that will be radical and ground breaking

Uniforms perpetuate the idea of gender, regardless of flexibility – there is still an absent but implicit assumption that there are feminine and masculine uniforms.But good on ya Dunedin North Intermediate for listening to students, that is worth celebrating. but wait until you guys get a good southerly up those kilts and I reckon there will be a quick run at the uniform shop for pants. And no modern uniform should have culottes they are worse than gender neutral they are gender dysfunctional.

 

I’m out

Suicide is a sensitive topic and the media has bravely gone there with gusto over the last few weeks. I understand why, NZ leads the OECD – our stats are nothing to be proud of. People are desperate to know why, to work on prevention, to fix this epidemic, to grow resilience, to start conversations that make space for people to express their feelings.

All important steps. All these things need to happen, and schools do need better resourcing. Which is why it still baffles me that trained, qualified counsellors are not a requirement in our schools. That there is no mandatory requirement or ratio. There are recommendations and guidelines but given the seriousness of the need the government and MOE need to rethink their ‘hands off’ approach to mental health and well-being in schools.

You see it all comes down to section 77 of the Education Act which states.

“the principal of a State school shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that … students get good guidance and counselling”

It does not say how this will be delivered or provided. And many schools under financial constraints deem non-teaching staff too costly. So while some schools have trained counsellors, they might be split between multiple roles.  Many schools have no trained counsellors. I’d like to see the government take the lead for once instead of hiding behind notions of self-governance. Young people deserve better than ‘good guidance and counselling’. But I’m still not satisfied.

As someone working on the front line I have a privileged access to what pushes young people to the edge and to consider the option of being ‘out’ of existence. While I addressed many of these in a previous blog I want to mention something of the chronic despair I am noticing – regardless of individual circumstances such as bullying, abuse, struggles with identity, connection, emotional distress. I think it speaks to a generation who are very aware of social, political, environmental and economic circumstances.

Some young people are looking at a world in crisis and going WTF? They cannot just find their way in the world as they go – they are expected to have it all sorted out by the time they are 15-16, to make all the right choices at the right times. They are saturated with the problems of the world and told they are the hope for the future. FFS society is holding a gun to their heads and telling them to enjoy the thrill! Some young people recognise how sick the system is that perpetuates the cycle – the monetary system, the neo-liberal capitalist drive to consume at all costs. The systems of fear and division and they are like ‘I’m out’. Suicide is not just about individuals – it is about creating the conditions on which staying alive is worth it!

To me this is the greatest challenge facing society – to look at suicide as more than an individual choice, but a about a systemic failure to create a world worth being in, a world where young people say ‘I’m in’.

Time out! What century is it?

A couple of days ago I blogged about Mental Health Awareness week and schools. I vowed to stop reading the Herald online on account of the atrocious grammar, like someone had their cat walk on their keyboard and randomly cut and paste things half the time, but I risk it now and again. The article I read had my head in a spin, a surge of adrenaline as the fury rose in my body indicated I should not read on, but I did.

This time the grammar held up, it was the content. Children being locked in a small, dark time out room for behaviour management, put into isolation. Now that had me burning for a start, then to find out some of those put into that space were on the Autistic spectrum just turned my anger into a form of transcendent hysteria. To finish me off the dismissive minimising language and rhetoric claiming it was not illegal just ‘outmoded’ and the Ministry of Educations response was about as strong as Donald Trumps credibility as a feminist.

Honestly I have absolutely no hesitation is stating this is nothing but abuse disguised as behaviour management. There is nothing about this practice that is about reducing distress, learning, care or compassion. It speaks to the gross lack of training, understanding and resourcing of education for complex needs. I’m sure some of those teachers thought there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, that is what worries me. There are students who will have challenges regulating emotions and behaviour because of abusive backgrounds or unique neurocognitive functioning, that’s called diversity. Being locked in dark spaces as punishment to experience more distress, fear and isolation is barbaric and totally deplorable. The MOE needed to say that, rather than its ‘monitoring the situation’. WTF is that? We’ll, pay someone, to interview some people to hire a consultant to write a report…

Meanwhile what about that room? I say, it needs to be turned into the only thing it is good for at this point, given its size is fish tank and Lego room. Students might happily go there to find some peace and quiet away from the crazy chaotic over stimulating real world. They might even paint a ‘do not disturb’ sign. I need that room now.

 

Fabricated fear

I think I have found the impasse of single sex education in New Zealand. There is a piece of fabric that is commonly known as pants that seems to send some single sex (girls) schools into a hysteria over gender. This piece of clothing has been worn by women for a long time, yet girls schools in the 21st century maintain skirts and culottes and tunics (WTF…seriously…) as the only way for young ‘women’ to be recognised in public as belonging to a ‘girls school’.

I have already expressed my frustration with an open letter to secondary principals, but this one is particularly for girls schools. I thought feminism (in all its fraught, contested and colonised ways) enabled women to express a freedom of embodiment that was not reduced to a singular way of being female that is ‘feminine’ via dressing in coded uniforms, effectively cancelling out feminism. All this talk about empowering women while disabling their freedom to be uniquely powerful with their individuality. The paranoia about the public perception of ‘girls in pants’.

If young women are questioning their gender identity or expression at a girls school, are they ‘betraying feminism’? Do trans guys at girls schools represent some sort of confused status of ‘growing strong young women’? Does the public image of a school outweigh the mental health of transguys – who might be experiencing extreme dysphoria, anxiety, depression and possibly feel suicidal? How is that schools can give medical dispensation for students undergoing other forms of medical treatment to wear modified uniforms yet transguys cant wear pants to help them feel safe, secure and relieve the anxiety of the dysphoria that is exacerbated by being forced into femininity!

What is the point of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) if the ‘universe’ it proclaims to design for ignores the margins, or pretends they don’t go out that far here (i.e. but there are no transgender students here).

Seriously – denying young people the right to feel comfortable and safe in their own bodies sickens me. It is an institutional form of abuse I am tired of hearing wrapped up in rhetoric around community consultation, and tradition. I’m tired and fed up with platitudes of caring about student well-being and requiring them to be exposed to a dis-ease infested environment. I sometimes wonder if the 21st century fell out of the spacetime continuum and they had to pick up something to replace it so we got bits of the 20th up until about 1950 because I’m not seeing a lot of shift in schools towards freedom of individuality – but the complete opposite.

So if you are a doctor or medical professional who is supporting a young trans guy attending an all girls school, please write them a medical certificate that reads – ‘administer systemic change to your schools uniform policy, but in the mean time give this student pants’ – wear daily, wash regularly.

Open Letter To Secondary School Principals

Dear school leader,

I have been working in schools for 20 years. I am also a product of the New Zealand school system. I am also proud to work with young people in the 21st century. I’m aware of the challenges of change, of change that is occurring rapidly and the desire to produce the best possible outcomes for those in our institutions.

The desire to move with the times in regard to future oriented/focussed education has seen modern learning environments and the integration of technology to grasp the new and complex ways of working and creating‘ ‘confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners’. Ensuring young people have a strong sense of who they, to be ‘positive in their own identity’. Therefore I ask one simple question. How can young people who are questioning their gender or sexuality experience ‘inclusion’ while they are outrightly denied opportunities to be who they are? How can New Zealand Secondary Schools call themselves ‘non-discriminatory’ when their very practices are designed to enforce discrimination, in order to maintain a sense of school identity? I’m confused, and I don’t think it’s a phase.

While it seems that MLE’s work hard to break down physical and pedagogical barriers there appears to be a counter move to maintain traditional ideas of gender. We have inherited a legacy of ‘single sex education’ from the early 20th century and these are perhaps caught between tradition and historical constructions, but is this a valid reason to maintain policies and practices that deny the existence of transgender or those students who’s sense of self falls outside prescribed normative notions of masculinity and femininity? Schools find ways to respect cultural diversity through inclusion of additions to uniform but refuse to allow students flexible options to express their gender regardless of sexuality.

If I could suggest one thing that might enable a new way of thinking, I’d invite school leaders to see this not as a moral issue, rather an opportunity to bring the concept and representation of diversity into the 21st century, it is actually about accessibility. But not just access to physical space, but to social, emotional, psychological and pedagogical access to knowledge, ideas, and practices that validate their identity. Yes this is a plea to be MORE PC – to Please Consider, Providing Choice.

Please phase in uniform choice and phase out outdated assumptions that require male and female bodies to be clearly identified by separate uniforms. Gender inclusive practices go beyond bathrooms and changing facilities (but these are still needed), staff training around use of language that helps young trans, gender and sexually diverse people (including staff) feel acknowledged needs to be part of ongoing professional development.

There are new sexuality guidelines for school, please do not ignore them or hope that ‘common sense’ will suffice, otherwise, schools rely on sense informed by fear, myths, and misconceptions. Respect for diversity requires ‘unique sense’, careful and thoughtful consideration BUT more important, courageous action. That is, to acknowledge these students exist in your community whether visible or not. Allow groups of young people to form support groups, do not force them ‘underground’ and into the shadows, to slam the closet door shut to protect the reputation of the school, or your own. To me, this is the ultimate indicator of a school that has yet to grasp the value of a more complex, uncertain and flexible concept of diversity. I’m still waiting to see Principals encourage and endorse these groups openly. I hope I don’t have to wait for my own child to get to High School (you have 5 years to get it sorted).

As an ex health teacher and a counsellor I ask that you consider the violence inflicted by denying and invalidating at least 10% of a school population. Then consider the violence that is normalised by society through homophobic and transphobic language and ask yourself if you are satisfied ‘common sense’ is working to make schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, fa’afafine, and takataapui young people.

Finally a personal reflection question -are you leading your community into the future of diversity or the past?