I have been watching silently this week as women are stepping forward to discuss times they felt uncomfortable about their interactions with male colleagues and feeling violated in their personal space.
I am not here to talk about the validity of any of these claims, or who to believe. Rather, I have been analyzing this from the lens of an educator, a mother and as a person who did not speak up.
I will never forget my excitement and anxiety as a first-year teacher about to receive feedback from my administrator on my teaching. I had seen a few colleagues lose their jobs due to poor performance, and I was eager to learn and grow in my new position.
Sitting in my administrator’s office, I eagerly waited to hear how my observation went. “You sure are wearing that dress,” he told me. I was a bit taken aback by the comment, so I nervously smiled, waited for his feedback about my teaching, suppressed the comment and continued on with the conversation as if nothing ever happened. I had convinced myself that he meant no harm by the comment and tried to put it out of my mind.
A few weeks later, walking down the hallway, that same administrator came up behind me after catching up to me in the hallway and said, “Oh, it’s just you. I thought you were a parent, I was going to ask you out. You look so good today.”
Again, shocked, I said nothing and walked away. Again, I convinced myself that he meant no harm, and I continued to move on.
During this time, my son was still a nursing infant, and I used my planning period to pump so that I could continue to nurse him. Everyone in my school knew this, including my administrator. One day, although I had the “do not disturb” sign on my locked door, he entered my classroom. Thankfully, I was covered up. However, I felt this was done purposefully and intentionally. “Oh my bad, I forgot you were doing that,” he said as he left.
I was floored, shocked, appalled and knew that this was wrong. And yet, I still said nothing. Disregarding these incidents, this administrator was actually an effective leader and a nice person, which had an impact on why I never spoke up. Eventually, someone else spoke up about things that were occurring with them, and he was removed.
With the current climate, I have been reflecting on this situation and realize that we have a responsibility as educators to address this and turn it into a teachable moment for our students.
I want to teach my daughter and my son to speak up and be firm when they feel uncomfortable. We have to teach our students this as well by establishing a trusting environment in our classrooms that fosters this skill.
We also have to teach our students to respect boundaries and to ask permission before entering someone’s personal space. We have to teach our students to let our “no” mean “no” and our “yes” mean “yes.” When it comes to serious issues of harassment and respect of self and others, we have to be clear with our comfort and our discomfort.
This is not an easy task for educators to take on, and there are tools that can assist us. For instance, this Teaching Tolerance tool for stopping bias provides the strategies of educate, question, interrupt and echo, which our students can use when advocating for themselves. While most of our focus lately has been on sexual harassment, we have an opportunity to educate our students on harassment of any kind and the importance of speaking up and speaking out against it.
Finally, we need to teach our students about the difference between intention versus reception. The way we intend for something to come across and the way it is received is very important. The sender of a message or action may have a clearly defined idea as to what they mean, but the way the receiver takes that message or action can be very different.
I think about what that administrator thought he was communicating to me through his actions. I think about what my silence might have communicated to him in return. Although I was uncomfortable, I never verbally stated it, which may have been misinterpreted by my administrator.
I hope our students will speak up for themselves in a better way than I could in the situation I described. I will intentionally be having courageous conversations with my son and my daughter because we also have to teach our students that harassment and discomfort are not a gender-specific thing. Men and boys can, and have, been victims too.
What commitments will you make and what actions will you take as we educate our students in the #MeToo era?