My experience as a teacher dealing with sexism, bullying of girls and victim blaming
I believe I am familiar with one of the types of young man who is sending Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy death threats. It’s quite likely that I have taught some of them. Here I will outline my experiences and why I believe this.
I worked in a school serving a community where domestic violence was common but little spoken about. It was just considered a fact of life by the pupils. Where fathers were abusive there seemed to be little in the way of disapproval from the community although it appeared that everybody knew what was going on. Mothers were downtrodden and often silent. Some boys had little respect for their female relatives and sadly brought these attitudes to women into school with them and inflicted them on their teachers and peers. The school would not get anything in the way of support from parents as many of the fathers had attitudes to women mirroring their sons and many of the mothers had little, if any, influence over their sons behaviour.
(From this point on when I say “boys” I do not mean ALL boys but the boys who behaved in the way I am describing)
These attitudes manifested themselves in several ways (some more serious than others)
- Girls expressing opinions, wanting to be taken seriously or learn were often shouted down by boys. This led many of them to keep their heads down and try not to be noticed. Comments about girls physical appearance and alleged sexual activities were common and often unchallenged.
- Girls were constantly being touched inappropriately by boys. It was shocking how commonplace and widespread this was. Every year I asked the girls in my tutor group and the girls attending my girls only after school classes about the situation several times and every time I asked around 70% of the girls said that boys had grabbed their breasts or bum without their consent that week. Ethnicity was a factor here as many of the african and vietnamese girls did not receive this treatment. Nor did the small number of middle class girls. Extremely intelligent girls were often sufficiently intimidating to the boys that behaved in this way that they too were often left alone.
- Many of the girls had such low self-esteem that they saw what I considered to be a sexual assault as some sort of positive affirmation. This led to them having mixed feelings about it. When asked they were clear that they did not want to be touched by random boys. However they also viewed the grabbing as evidence of their attractiveness. They also said that they hung around the boys laughing at their inane wittering, flirting and pretending not to mind getting touched up because not doing so made it worse.
- Virtually none of the girls wanted incidents of bullying challenged or escalated beyond me dealing with it immediately. It was a rare day that I did not deal with at least one incident of this sort and only one girl ever wanted the incident referred to a senior member of staff. Most either said they didn’t care or were in fear of being bullied more if they grassed.
The school took very few of these incidents seriously and it was very hard work on my part to get anyone senior to do anything at all.
Reasons for inactivity I was given by SMT were variations on (in order of frequency)
- If the girls won’t complain about or report these incidents then there is nothing we can do about them.
- It’s just your word against the boys.
- Involving the police will make the school look bad.
- If the girls are going to flirt with the boys what do they expect?
- The girls want attention from boys. Why else would they have their skirts so short?
- If we deal with these incidents we would have to permanently exclude the boys or we look ridiculous and soft. The Headteacher does not permanently exclude on principle therefore we will not deal with these incidents.
There was a culture of not only not dealing with these incidents but not challenging them at all. They became normalised until eventually many members of staff stopped noticing unless it was pointed out to them. Several members of staff, unwilling to acknowledge that they were permitting sexual assaults in their lessons engaged in increasingly complex mental gymnastics to explain away the boys behaviour, the girls behaviour, their own behaviour or a combination of the three.
What really didn’t help the situation in this regard was that challenging the poor behaviour of boys often led to aggression, shouting, threats of violence and verbal abuse from the boys which was often not dealt with by senior management
The excuses usually involved a combination of:
- If I challenge the boys I won’t be supported and that will undermine my authority. Therefore I will not challenge them.
- If the girls want me to intervene they should complain
- The girls don’t seem to mind
- The girls flirt with the boys. Why would they do that if they don’t want any attention?
I tried to change things. God knows I tried. I failed. I got those colleagues I called friends to support me in any way they felt able to. I got those teachers confident and strong enough to do so to challenge the predatory behaviour of the boys. I constantly bugged senior managers to do something. I spent many break and lunchtimes with pupils who wanted to feel safe. Sadly I don’t think I changed anything (although one young woman I am still in touch with and extremely proud of broke the nose of one of her tormentors).
4 students from this time stand out in my memory. I will try to describe their behaviour in a way that does not make them too easily identified.
Students 1 and 2:
Student 1 was a lovely, bright, pretty, reasonably conscientious student when I met her. Sadly Student 2 decided she should be his girlfriend. He was in my tutor group and all the girls in the tutor group loathed and avoided him. He was constantly making inappropriate sexual remarks and talking about girls appearances in an extremely lewd fashion. I dealt with this as best I could but could not escalate it when he didn’t stop as nobody was interested in dealing with it. I heard him boasting to one of his mates one morning about touching student 1 up. I happened to be free lesson 1 so I discreetly followed him and saw him walk up behind her and grab her bum. When she spun around her face went visibly pale when she saw who it was and she started backing away. He was reaching out to touch her again when I got to them. He ran away. When I said that I would refer the incident to the Head of Year Student 1 begged me not to. She said that nobody would do anything about it and it would make everything worse. To my shame I did not refer the incident but instead told her that she should tell me if he did it again and that I would deal with it. I then kept Student 2 behind at the end of the day and laid into him. His response was to laugh at me because he knew that if I was dealing with the incident I had no referred it to anyone more senior. He knew that Student 1 had asked me not to. This made me so angry that I spoke to Student 1 the following day, took her to the Senior Manager in charge of Child Protection and we talked through what had been going on. When I spoke to the Senior Manager the following day I was informed that the school was not going to do anything to Student 2 because Student 1 did not want them to.
A year later Student 1 asked me if she could speak to me in private. She told me that Student 2 had been grabbing her, touching her, spreading rumours about her and telling everyone they were having sex. This had led other boys to call her names and feel that it was acceptable for them to touch her too. She was afraid that she would be bullied if she told anyone what she was going on. I told her that if she wanted what was happening to stop she had to info Senior Management and the police. She refused to involve the police but eventually agreed to talk to Senior Management again. She was told that she would be protected from bullying. Student 2 was internally excluded for several days. Student 1 was very concerned that she would be bullied when Student 2 came out of the exclusion. I reassured her that the school would not allow that to happen. I was very much mistaken. She was bullied so badly that she left the school a year later after becoming severely depressed. It’s silly I know but I still feel responsible. I still feel like I failed her. Like I should have done something more or something better.
Very different students but alike in their behaviour in so many ways that I am putting them together. They are almost unique in personality and life circumstances so I will stay away from those areas and merely describe their behaviour.
In EVERY lesson they would threaten other students, touch any girl near them, wander round the room in order to touch girls if they were seated away from the girls, shout abuse at the girls (normally but not always of a sexual nature).
When challenged on this behaviour they always shouted at, swore at and threatened the teacher challenging them. This was reported repeatedly but never successfully addressed so many teachers stopped challenging them completely. If their behaviour in lessons was bad then their behaviour between lessons and during breaks was worse.
I spent 6 months trying and failing to get someone to do something about this. No one would touch it. Eventually having exhausted every avenue I could think I refused to teach them. This prompted the school into action and they were eventually put on various forms of report, threatened with permanent exclusion and other sanctions. This made them behave in my lesson but had little impact I could see on their behaviour anywhere else in the school as far as I could tell. Far too many members of staff were scared of them because they felt threatened by them.
Every time I tried to get them dealt with I confronted with the same sort of comments:
- We can’t do anything if the girls won’t complain
- If the girls don’t want to be treated in that way they should complain
- The girls say they don’t mind
There was a blanket refusal to accept that the girls were too scared to complain or make statements, that they were being bullied into saying it was ok.
When I describe this to people who did not work in the school at this time I am often disbelieved. I expect that many will accuse me of exaggerating for effect or lying. This is nothing new to me. It saddens me but those that would deny the truth cannot make it go away. Every incident I describe above happened.
I am willing to accept that I am speculating as to the motives and thinking in some cases but I don’t believe I am far off the mark with my speculation.
These boys learned that virtually nobody would do anything about it if they sexually assaulted girls or treated them like dirt. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if at least some of them are not the ones make rape threats.
This post was first published here - thanks to author for permission to cross post.
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Thank you for sharing this, it sounds so much like the school I used to go to. It was a very depressing read, probably because its completely true and so widespread in this world 🙁
This is one of the most harrowing things i have read on here. And i believe you @bigkid4 Completely.
In my first week of high school in 1984 my drama teacher asked me to speak sexily to him in front of the entire class. I was 11 years old and only had a vague idea of what sexy was (1984 no internet) so i tried to sound like Marilyn Monroe. I felt uncomfortable doing it. And then he told me i was about as sexy as a bag of washing. Everyone laughed. I felt embarrassed and upset and never complained about it. I think that even at that young age i knew i would be blamed.
There was also a boy who bullied me badly at high school He had always been unpredictable and used to sit opposite me in science biting off bits of his pen and spitting it in my hair. He took the piss out of me for being overweight and would follow me home from school on a few occasions. Once he pushed me into a hedge and stood in front of me so i couldnt move. The schools answer “we must make allowances because hes a foster child. I also got/get the inpression with schools that they are more worried about their reputation than childrens welfare.
Fast forward to 2006. I was in my home town shopping when i heard someone call out my name. I turned around and it was him but he pretended he hadnt done anything.(He had just got out of prison for drugs offences) This happened a few times. As he was so unpredictable i phoned the Suzy Lamplugh Trust for advice and they were brilliant. They supplied me with a free rape alarm for my peace of mind.
My heart goes out to the students you mentioned who suffered this abuse.
You did your absolute best and you did not fail them But schools and the system are failing like this every single day. I really really hope that Student 2 doesnt intimidate Student 1 years later or anyone else.
We really really need for someone to give regular lessons in schools about why all this is unacceptable as part of a Life Skills module.
And we have to stop giving out messages to girls that they are responsible for the boys behaviour.
Because this message gets instilled early on when girls are told that if their skirts are too short it will distract the boys.
These messages are wrong and what is needed is a cultural shift and this has to happen and start at a young age.
I’m glad to have read this as a young teacher who is of an sort of in-between generation person. However, my expertise usually lies in single or pair teaching. I have experienced the receiving end of this sort of behavior when I was in grade school, and built a ferocious, violent reputation. (Kind of the sort surrounding a mine-field, stepped too close and you might get pummeled) Yes, I’m female.
The students I accept into my studio are those who understand the value of *NOT* bullying. Granted, they are all very smart to be able to take my lessons as they do. In addition to the skills of the art I teach, I usually make a point to learn their perks, and generally know them as a person so later down the road, hopefully one day they can look back and go: “Hey, I remember that something Miss A said not to do.” Or, “Hey, Miss A says that isn’t cool, and she’s a cool teacher.”
God – I don’t think I’ll ever stop being horrified about the state of schools. My parents are both teachers, so I’ve always been immersed in school culture, and also changed schools a lot and experienced a wide variety. The stuff that goes on in them is horrendous, but your school sounds particularly bad in terms of sex-based bullying.
I’ve always hated this idea of “They only tease her because a) they like her or b) they’re curious/jealous”. I got a lot of that kind of teasing, not physically but things like various popular boys declaring their love for me, asking me to go out with them, etc – (in an obviously false way) and I hated it so much, but everyone told me I was just overreacting to their flirting. Ugh.
Also, good on you for keeping on and persevering in teaching, because with everything I hear from my parents – and things I’ve seen happen – I cannot think of a worse profession that people make out to be good and ‘easy’. Where else do you have people with uni degrees being physically threatened, verbally abused, completely ignored even though they’re the authority…?
Thanks to all who have commented on this piece. We were greatly disturbed reading it and we are so grateful to @bigkid4 for writing it. We need to bring #victimblaming out of the shadows and highlight the abuse that occurs in all institutions.
Writing this was very cathartic for me. I still feel angry about it years after I left that school but I was surprised by how angry.
You see challenging the boys regularly resulted in me getting sowrn at and threatened. This usually required Senior Management intervention so I was branded “bad at managing behaviour”. I was put under a lot of pressure to stop requesting and demanding support from senior management in managing behaviour. I was informed that until my behaviour management “improved” I would not be promoted and that I should selectively ignore “minor instances of poor behaviour” rather than creating situations requiring Senior Management intervention.
I believe this was a contributing factor to the breakdown I had during my 5th year in the school. I’m fully better now but I still have issues around anger and depression that I have to keep a close eye on.
When I left the school my new employers gave me a promotion and pay rise and then another pay rise within a year. For me this confirmed my belief that I am good at my job and that they were the problem not me.
I know some people who still work there and they say little has changed.
What is unusual for me is people who do not know the school believing me. Thank you for that. I have been accused of exaggerating or lying many times. To have people read this and accept it is a big positive for me because it has been so rare over the years.
I sent this to student 1 before sending it to you and she approved. She also said she may send you something herself if she can face writing it.
What I still cannot understand is how a headteacher who regularly talks at some length about how important challenging bullying and raising the aspirations of girls are could allow this situation to go on for years without even trying to address it. I suppose she found talking about it easier than actually doing it.
The situation you describe is not unique to the bullying of girls, and how indeed could it be?
My son has suffered a lot of bullying at his secondary school, from boys and girls. My daughter less, but the worst has been from girls. Despite all the nonsense about the anti-bullying policy and encouraging pupils to ‘speak out’ etc., the general equivocation and inaction is clearly intended to make pupils realise there is no point whatsoever in complaining. Furthermore, the school does its upmost to implicate or blame the victim so they have to be pretty determined and tough to pursue a complaint.
The female deputy head with responsibility for pastoral care declared in a session for new parents that there was no bullying at the school, and that what might be taken as bullying was really just the “rite of passage” entirely natural to the healthy development of boys. “Boys will be boys,” as she put it. When I questioned this story I found myself in the strange position of having the transition to manhood explained to me in entirely false terms by a woman, despite having been through the experience myself! I subsequently came to understand what motivated her primitive view – it was helpful that children having their lives made a misery were not being subject to violence and cruelty, but merely being given an induction into adulthood! There is no bullying at the school!
The anti-bullying policy is a masterpiece of grand and enlightened intentions, but vague promises without any clearly-defined actions, all paths being specified as “at the discretion” of the appropriate authority. In practice, parents and pupils are given the run-around, with the school rarely following-up on anything or doing what it has promised to do. Again, the strategy appears to be to wear the complainant down so they don’t bother the school again. The reflex is also to suggest the victim must be doing something to attract or provoke any unwanted attention – the solution therefore being that they stop whatever that is.
Why are things like this? Cowardice and a preference to avoid inconvenience and difficulty! To be different requires resolve, strength of character, integrity, and competence. It’s an ethos that needs to be built and sustained from the top down over a long period. The situation you describe regarding assaults on girls is merely a symptom. You can be sure that the qualities that give rise to the school’s woeful response to that problem informs every other aspect of it functioning in relation to the kids. Dealing with kids is difficult. Most people are spineless and don’t like difficult. No doubt some are simply out of their depth. That’s a shame for kids because when they’re in trouble they needs adults, not people pretending to be adults.
Uncannily similar to my experience as a teacher