Teens, schools, and power relations

Two recent stories out of the UK on young people in school environments have got me thinking (once again) about the way in which educational spaces are often much less spaces for genuine learning than they are spaces in which unequal power relationships between young people (students) and adult people (administrators and teachers) play out in mutually destructive ways.

First, a short piece from the "odd news" section of the UK-based website digitalspy on a school in somerset that banned snogging (kissing) on school grounds. Students who are caught "in the act" will be suspended from school. While the short piece at digitalspy gives no reason for the ban, a local Somerset paper reports the impetus behind the ban was a full-frontal snog witnessed by the headmaster. This type of reaction to students public displays of affection is reminiscent of the recent New York Times' breathless report on the hugging "trend" in American schools. While there may be legitimate reasons for asking students to refrain from heavy or prolonged making-out on school grounds, an all-out ban seems like overkill destined to provide one more reason for students to (perhaps legitimately in this case!) believe adults are completely barmy.

In a more serious and lengthy report yesterday morning on the BBC news hour, I heard a story about online "cyber-bullying" of teachers by their pupils:

Teachers have always had to put up with personal jibes from kids.

Until very recently, however, malicious gossip and snide remarks have mostly been confined to the corridors or lunch queues.

But now with the explosion of websites like ratemyteachers.co.uk and bebo.com, teachers are suddenly finding themselves mocked in cyberspace, resulting in plunging morale and even threats to quit the profession.

. . .

Ms Wallis [a senior teacher from Cornwall] claims that the site is seriously damaging trust between students and teaching staff.

"When you're facing a class five times a day, with 30 children at a time, and you don't know who has actually written these things, you become far more guarded in everything you do.

"And the bottom line is you lose all trust in the students you've got sitting in front of you."

What struck me about the report was the way students were portrayed as the bullies with the power to destroy teachers' emotional well-being and reputation. Obviously mean-spirited gossip is hurtful, and adults are not invulnerable to personal slurs just because they originate from people younger than themselves. Bullying is not confined to childhood spaces, and can cross generational boundaries. Yet the journalists covering this story seemed oblivious of the complex power dynamics at play in an educational institution -- power dynamics that privilege adult authority, embodied by teachers and administrators, over the authority of young people. Teachers in a classroom exercise the right to pass judgment on students in contexts that have real-life consequences for a child's future (this is especially true in a school system, such as in the UK, with national curriculum and testing standards). And while some of the "rating" comments are cruel, the reasons for poor ratings are not necessarily just kids having a bit of fun at the teacher's expense. As one student interviewed reflected,

"I know one teacher who I think is really rude," says a 15-year-old boy at Haydon School in Pinner, north west London. "But there's no-one who can tell him that so, in a way, if they look at the site, it's good because they can change their attitude."

In a school environment that operates on a top-down, hierarchical model, students may have no (or very few) opportunities to make their voices heard -- or more importantly feel they are taken seriously when they do speak up -- without fear of retribution . . . except anonymously, online. Another student interviewed said she didn't feel bad about the negative comments she had posted online. "I rated my worst teachers," she told the BBC, "I said they were rubbish and didn't teach me anything." The fact that children have found alternate ways to communicate with the world about their academic experiences is not necessarily "bullying" -- it may simply be providing us with a more balanced picture of what young peoples' lived experiences in school are actually like. I doubt it will lead to any serious soul-searching on the part of those invested in an hierarchical academic system, but it will certainly be interesting to see how the struggle plays out.


  1. Lots of thoughts....

    One of my longtime friends is a secondary school teacher. She's brilliant beyond belief, an excellent teacher, and thoroughly passionate about her calling. Yet, when she was bullied by students (had things thrown at her head, objects destroyed, etc), the school administration refused to back her up.

    I was shocked, mostly because the school that I attended just over a decade ago seems to have changed so dramatically.

    The other thing that I found to be interesting, having changed radically in the past decade, is the use of recreational drugs (heroin, etc) and the business of having sex on school property. There were certainly sexually active students at my high school "back in the day," but they were generally couples who had been together for a very long time and had stable relationships. Sex certainly wasn't happening in the corridors. While many of my peers drank, only a few did drugs - and people who did pot were the losers of the school.

    Now, there's a huge drug problem, with several heroin-related deaths every year. The school system in the town next door instituted drug searches of property and lockers; they bring in drug-sniffing dogs on a random basis. (That apparently helped their problems.) Every month or so, kids will be caught having sex in the hallways, in the bathroom, or in the school elevator. It's not uncommon for middle schoolers to be engaged in sex and oral sex.

    In light of that, I absolutely understand a crackdown. Thing is, I think students would, too. No sane person runs around thinking that a ban on kissing in the hallways is really about just kissing: they would know that it's about ensuring that the school remains a safe place.

  2. Hi Bridget,

    I hear what you're saying about the real pain bullying can cause teachers who face it from colleagues and students in the schools where they work. I think abuse of any kind of power (even if it's just the power to emotionally injure someone) should not go unaddressed. I'm sorry your friend was actually physically threatened by her students and did not receive support and protection from the school administration.

    About the kissing ban -- I have to disagree with you that banning physical affection between students is first and foremost about "ensuring that the school remains a safe place" and that students will understand the ban isn't really about kissing. What is the connection between stopping students from being physically affectionate with each other and protecting them from dangerous things like powerful drugs and risky sex? If the goal is to give students a secure environment in which to explore the world, then school officials should actually ban things which are proven to be harmful (like cocaine, guns, or bullying) to the students . . . not things like hugging or kissing that are in and of themselves not damaging.

    If the concern is about whether such activities are wanted by all parties concerned, then make a rule about non-consensual physical contact - or make it clear that the school policy against bullying includes protecting children from unwanted physical touch.

  3. Clarifying my point about the ban on kissing: while I fully support the idea that kissing is an end in itself (and deplore the idea that it is "only foreplay"), I do think that some of it is simply administrative efficiency. Sadly, black-and-white rules can be easier for everyone to follow, since the lines are clear: teachers know what conduct is punishable and students know what conduct to avoid. (An analogy: as terrible as Miranda is in terms of constitutional law, a lot of people - police included! - love it, because it sets out, plainly and simply, what needs to be done and what lines cannot be crossed.)

    I think that the rationale behind the ban is to ensure that teachers have the power to break things up that are moving well beyond kissing, without having to get into stupid discussions about why it was inappropriate. "Well, his hand was starting to move under her shirt, and she was grabbing his butt..." just doesn't properly explain why the behaviour is wrong and where the line is.

    That would be too much like the "obscenity" issue of "I know it when I see it."

    As with a lot of these things, the biggest question is about enforcement. If the ban isn't enforced except to stop students who are falling all over each other, then it's working (especially if students are well aware that their peers are having oral sex in the bathrooms). If it does indeed result in students getting detention for a peck on the lips, it's a problem.

    As always, thank you for the good discussion. :)