I’m having trouble finding a way into this blog. No catchy first sentence. No “gotcha” line to keep you reading. No, none of that. This one is tough because I’m struggling with how to write it or even whether to write it. So bear with me, dear reader, and if you’ve hung in thus far, I hope you’ll be patient and stay with me through to the end because I think it’s important we tackle this together.
Something tragic happened last week at a Toronto school. If you live in Canada you may know what I’m talking about as it’s been all over the news. If you don’t, suffice to say a number of incidents, one of them a violent “hazing” (i.e., sexual assault), resulted in the expulsion of eight students from a private boys’ school and police are now investigating.
A part of me doesn’t want to touch the topic because I know there is immense pain and anger running through that school community. At times like this, it’s easy to pass judgement from afar. As a school leader, however, I believe it’s my responsibility to speak up and engage our students and families during difficult times, not to blithely reassure them that we are superior and that nothing of the sort could ever happen at our wonderful school. On the contrary, I want to open up dialogue to help our school community reflect, both humbly and openly, on how we can ensure that nothing like that ever happens in our school.
In the case of the Toronto school, after the formal investigations are over, the school community will undertake an internal examination to understand the multiplicity of long embedded school culture, male culture and sports culture factors that contributed to this tragic occurrence. I hope this process of self-examination is truly rigorous. I make this last point not in judgement but with full knowledge that schools are social constructs that establish strongly embedded messages around hegemony – who holds power and who does not. These constructs act to preserve the status quo and are highly resistant to change.
It’s important to understand that cultural forces play out across all school communities, in both tacit and overt ways, and establish powerful norms that shape adult as well as student behaviour. These forces create what is called the hidden curriculum – the norms, values, rules and expectations that students absorb but are not explicitly taught. This curriculum is hidden because it’s implicit and usually unacknowledged, and as such, can exist unchallenged until it becomes deeply embedded in the ethos of a school.
When the hidden curriculum is aligned with the formal lessons taught and with a school’s mission and values, it can be a pro-social force, reinforcing all that is good and moral, creating positive peer pressure that benefits all. Unfortunately, the hidden curriculum can sometimes become a malevolent force, disconnected from and in opposition to what is officially espoused by a school’s leadership and its mission. Students sense the hypocrisy, seeing how this moral void became filled with an alternate set of rules, beliefs and norms.
Here’s the thing. The hidden curriculum, this construction of cultural capital and the rules governing who sits on top, exists in every school. Absolutely every school. Students know this. They might not give voice to it or even be able to articulate the rules with eloquence, but they learn what the rules are. They understand the currency of power. As such, every school leader should ask the following set of questions: What’s our hidden curriculum? Is it a force for good? And if not, what are we going to do about it?
School leaders are obligated to understand the dominant culture in their school even though it can be challenging to uncover because powerful norming forces work to keep it hidden. But school leaders must try to reveal what lives below the surface because, as adults, we are often the only thing standing between students and a descent into a Lord of the Flies mentality. Sometimes it’s easy to do, oftentimes it’s not, but regardless, school leaders are charged with creating and maintaining a pro-social school culture. And like a skilled rider atop a challenging mount, there needs to be constant contact that adjusts carefully and continually, sometimes gently coaxing, occasionally firmly correcting, but always knowing who must be in charge.
As a school leader, here’s what I know about our school: No football. Lots of girls.
No football is a simple way of saying we do not have a culture of toxic masculinity. Dominance in our school is not determined through swagger and force, physical aggression is rare, emotional vulnerability is allowed, and there is general acceptance that gender is a continuum.
On the other hand, we are a girls’ school. We understand the complexity of female relationships and know that relational aggression, while not packing the physical weight of a punch, can still devastate. We know that girls use the eye roll, the nasty rumour, the random “that seat’s taken” act of excluding, and the “It was just a joke” justification for a hurtful comment about another girl’s body or appearance or clothes. These acts are hard to police because they’re subtle, fleeting and almost always happen when adults aren’t around.
I met last week with our Upper School students to talk about what was in the news. (At the same time, our Director of Lower School held a friendship assembly with our younger ones.) When I spoke to the girls, I didn’t dwell on the details of what had been reported in the news. We all agreed that something of that nature was unlikely to occur in our school setting. But we did talk about what it looks like when “mean girl” behaviours occur, and we considered why such things happen. I posed the question: What makes a girl act out in a hurtful way?
The students’ answers were thoughtful and honest. They shared how feelings of jealousy and envy can cause normally kind girls to lash out. They talked about times when low self-esteem or poor self-image make them push friends away. They described how being bullied or put down or treated badly can result in anger that bubbles to the surface and gets directed towards others. And they admitted how a series of single thoughtless texts can result in friendship groups being torn apart as girls are forced to take sides.
Then we turned our thoughts to who we want to be. We talked about the Trafalgar sisterhood and reminded ourselves that sisters sometimes argue and don’t always get along. I assured them that we don’t expect them to be perfect. We know they’re going to make mistakes. We recognize they’re still learning to navigate relationships and manage new emotions. And that, yes, there are times when they may be unkind and we won’t hate them for it. Instead, we’ll help them to be better.
The girls then explored the importance of the apology and the healing power of forgiveness. They talked about the need for bystanders to be brave enough to intervene when problems arise. We agreed that the five simple words, “We don’t do that here,” are what we want to encourage every Trafalgar girl to say. And we decided to promote small acts of kindness – a smile in the hallway, a door held open, a quick check in if someone seems sad. Those are the little things that support a positive school culture.
I am not naïve enough to believe that our girls are perfect. I know they make mistakes and I know conflicts occur. And I also know from experience that some children and teens will struggle to show empathy and compassion despite our best efforts to guide them. But for all their human failings, our girls make me proud. Every day, I see them trying to honour the Trafalgar sisterhood by supporting one another through difficult times with warmth and compassion, and learning to speak up when problems arise.
My thoughts and prayers go out to every school community across our country that may be struggling to cope with the aftermath of bullying and violence. Sadly, there are far too many of them. Some of these schools will have cultures more difficult to change than others, but the first step is always a willingness on the part of the community to look deep inside the soul of the school – to examine what’s valued, what’s privileged, and what’s allowed. Only then can positive change take place.