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.