Student Well-Being Opinion

Are Schools Responsible for Teaching Boys to Respect Girls?

By Nancy Flanagan — November 30, 2017 3 min read
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In yesterday’s flurry of sexual misconduct announcements and accusations, there it was—a suggestion that maybe we need to be teaching boys how to respect girls before they grow up and become gropers. And who should do this? Schools, of course.

It was a panel discussion on Chuck Todd’s MTP Daily, and the remark was fleeting, a hand-wringing response to the eternal questions: Why do men think this is OK? Where do they learn that they are entitled to help themselves to women’s bodies?

Is school part of the problem? Or is school the right place to re-order societal beliefs about justice and equity?

I am of the opinion that blogger Remy Anne is correct:
2017 is the year of unmasking. From realizing which of your family members and friends are bigoted racists, to discovering how powerful men really think of women, there's no more hiding who you truly are and what you believe in.

This white male bullying has been going on forever—and has been swept under the rug, renamed and rationalized. Even embraced, and justified as what God intended.

Education Week has a good story up today—When It Comes to Sexual Harassment, Schools Are Not Immune—filled with depressing examples of how schools are just like other workplaces. All educators have experienced the Elementary Principal Who Hires Only Cute Young Women, or the Creepy High School Teacher Who Gives Girls a Ride Home (and a quick fondle).

I blogged about my own experience with sexual harassment last year—a #MeToo moment—during the campaign. In my case, the harasser was well-known in the community, both for his civic engagement as a volunteer firefighter as well as a man you didn’t want hanging around your daughter. He continued to abuse young women—his students—for years, before a high school girl came forward.

I don’t think it’s surprising that schools are just like hospitals, corporate offices, Target stores and churches—there’s always some dude who sees the workplace as his personal power playground.

But—can schools and teachers do anything to mitigate this?

I would suggest that they already are, to some extent. A large chunk of every teacher’s job is what we blandly call “building community"—teaching children to respect each other’s contributions and personal space. If you’ve spent time in a kindergarten, you’ve heard children admonished to pay attention to others and keep their hands and feet to themselves. Well-known school guidelines and playground rules are about keeping children safe, and respecting their bodily integrity.

Respecting their personal value is another, and more difficult, matter. There are multiple studies, some conflicting, on teachers’ gender biases in the classroom. Do teachers subtly reward boys, who are eight times more likely to call out answers? Is this one of those building blocks toward making half the population believe they have more power? And how does race play into this subconscious bias?

There’s also parental backlash against public schools for teaching anything other than factual content—the idea that schools and teachers should not insert “values” into curriculum. That’s a weak argument, and I say that as a parent whose children were sometimes taught by public school educators with distinctly different values than mine.

It’s impossible to teach anything—from chemistry to literature—without discussing and dissecting the values underlying the content. Every subject discipline is imbued with principles and applications of how the collective knowledge is used to make life better (or worse) for the planet.

There isn’t a teacher in America who has been able to avoid what happens on CNN or Fox News—children bring their families’ values into the classroom. And the easiest path for educators is to reproduce the cultural norms of the communities where they teach. But maybe these past few days represent a sea change in national thinking about gender inequality.

So, yes, there probably is a potential role for schools in reinforcing justice, equity and safety for women. We can demonstrate respect for women and girls and shut down loose talk about girls and their role in society. Female teachers can be role models for strength and articulate defenders of respect for women.

We can all pay attention and keep our hands to ourselves.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.