November 2012

Challenging gender stereotypes at school

White Ribbon Day on November 25 presents a catalyst for boys’ schools to take on the challenge of raising issues about the treatment of women, writes Joe Zavone.

BY Joe Zavone

Having spent almost half of my teaching career working in Good Samaritan schools, and therefore half of my career teaching girls exclusively, the next phase of my vocation has led me to teaching boys.

The move from one to the other has given me the chance to reflect on my ‘Good Samaritan years’ and consider the privileged opportunity it was to work with young women and to empower them to enter their world with confidence, competence and character. But it has also allowed me to look ahead and discern my role in influencing young men in challenging their attitudes and behaviours towards women.

There were many special moments during my ‘Good Samaritan years’. I clearly recall holding a meeting with a whole year group to talk about their lack of adherence to the uniform policy. What started as a rather authoritarian meeting evolved into an explanation of just how liberating a uniform can be. “A school uniform liberates students from the pressures placed on them by society, the media and their peers,” I told the students. “Students need not give a thought about what trend they are following or what ‘look’ they are developing every day. They can be free of the stereotypical limitations placed upon them – to just be themselves,” I said.

I thought some girls may have understood where I was going with this idea, but what I didn’t expect was the spontaneous round of applause afterwards! It was a shock at first, but on reflection, it told me that there are times when girls want their experiences and their stories acknowledged, understood and affirmed. I suppose this was one time when they saw their male deputy principal acknowledging their experiences quite clearly!

A similar special moment was when, as acting principal, I addressed our Year 12 students at their graduation ceremony. On that occasion I described the line of leadership in our nation at that time, starting with our monarch, then the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, the NSW Premier, the NSW Deputy Premier, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, our local Federal Member of Parliament, and of course, our own principal. This moment still stays with me because I was able to share this wonderful example of overwhelmingly female leadership with our students and provide them with a sense of ambition and accomplishment.

In that same address to Year 12 students, I also made the point that our young women are not, and should not be, defined by their dress size or their ‘look’, nor by any stereotyped and clichéd images. Instead, they are defined by their character and their actions.

Working now with boys allows me further opportunities to be counter-cultural in terms of challenging female stereotypes. Boys need to acutely critique what they view, what they read and of course what they do. They need skills to fortify their character and remain strong in the face of what can be easily accessed and viewed. It is frightening to learn that an individual sitting at a computer for a few hours is exposed to as much pornography as previous generations were exposed to in a whole lifetime.

Boys – and girls – need to take responsibility for their own actions and accept consequences. It is worrying to observe the growing victim mentality in our society – where a radio commentator who is intentionally derogatory and offensive toward a Prime Minister can be seen as the victim because he feels people have treated him too harshly. Similarly, it’s worrying when the perpetrators of dreadful bullying and intimidation in one of our university colleges perceive that they have become the victims and have been treated unfairly.

I am very fortunate that I work in a boys’ school where the model of masculinity presented is counter-cultural and framed within the context of Jesus Christ. Here, teachers are discouraged to raise their voices at students and are asked to look at more pastoral means of behaviour management. Here, one day of a three-day Year 11 retreat is spent on the importance of developing right relationships with the opposite gender. Here, it is not out of place for a female teacher to provide a Gospel reflection during a whole school Mass on the women who shaped the life of the founder of our charism.

It is pleasing to see that counter-cultural models of masculinity are slowly taking stronger shape in our society. I feel encouraged that we have movements such as the White Ribbon campaign, where men are leading the way by informing other men of the abhorrence of violence against women; that men are challenging other men to look at themselves and their mates and question their attitudes and behaviours towards women.

As such, White Ribbon Day on November 25 presents a catalyst for boys’ schools to take on the challenge of raising issues about the treatment of women, to educate and skill students in the development of right relationships, and to critique their own behaviours, perceptions and stereotypes.

November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It’s also White Ribbon Day, a day which highlights the urgent need to end the attitudes and behaviours which lead to violence against women.

Joe Zavone

Joe Zavone has been a secondary school teacher for 27 years. He is currently Assistant Principal (Curriculum) at Christian Brothers' High School, Lewisham in Sydney. Before that he was Assistant Principal at St Patrick's College, Campbelltown and Deputy Principal at St Scholastica's College, Glebe.

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