Do we live “in a man’s world?”

A fellow teacher and friend stormed into the English workroom yesterday, fuming. Her arms flailing and her eyes darting from side to side, she exploded with frustration over the state of the world. Sometimes it was just too much, she said. Of course, this happens to her relatively often. She cares a lot for her students, and because working in a school with 70+% pupil premium average is often stressful and frustrating, she gets emotional on occasion.

I’m glad. It reminds me that we should get upset about some of the things we get calloused to, things that should always outrage us as educators, no matter how long we’ve been teaching in challenging schools.

She’d just run into a year 12 student who was in floods of tears. Apparently this student had been pulled aside by two senior level female members of staff in the spirit of being helpful and told that–because this girl was going to be accepting an award that evening for her “enterprise skills” and efforts throughout the year to improve her employability–she needed to dress more professionally. According to my friend, this girl was told she “would be an embarrassment” dressed as she was and she “needed to dress for success in a man’s world,” and they were willing to go buy her a suit for the occasion.

Now, to preface, I had also seen this girl that day and her skirt was very short. She was dressed like many girls in our school whose dress code has always been “professional dress.” Nobody seems to have enforced the notion of the pants-suit for females, or an appropriate skirt length and fit. Indeed, if you look at a NewLook catalogue, her outfit came straight from its pages and certainly would not have worked in an office environment. Short, flared skirt, 15 denier black tights, ballet flats, and a fitted ribbed shirt said teenager, not professional. But all the girls wore these in sixth form, and they had all year, so why would she know it was wrong? It’s not as if they looked to the female teachers for dress sense.

As such, when this teacher stormed in–full of her righteous feminist rage–I considered the comment “man’s world” and genuinely wondered: do we still live in a man’s world? And does it help us (as women) or hurt us to acknowledge this? When I asked this question, my friend responded by saying “It perpetuates the system. We must change the system. We can not live in a man’s world!”

But can you change something you refuse to acknowledge? Should we acknowledge this? Is it in fact true that women still live in a man’s world?

And in connection to this, was it right for two senior level teachers to pull this girl aside and try to help her prepare for this event where she needed to look professional?

I think I would argue that offering to buy this girl a suit wasn’t a bad idea. In fact, said in the right context, this could have further inspired her! How amazing for her! This girl has worked so hard all year and desperately desires to better herself. This girl is absolutely lovely and a joy to teach. She soaks in information, listens attentively, challenges herself, explores and experiments with language and is an exemplary student. She’s never been top of the class, but she’s always been a top student to teach–a teachable pupil who smiles sweetly and desperately tries to improve. And she has improved! She’s doing very well!

Whose fault is it that she was wearing a skirt too short that day? Is it the result of living in a man’s world where women are overlooked? Or is it the result of living in a world where underprivileged kids are held to lower standards on a day-to-day basis?

I won’t say much about this girl’s background, but she has had it tough. She’s consequently been very independent from a young age, maturing quickly and often on her own to make decisions. I was her form tutor for years 9-11 and when I see her today I’m still often amazed at her success so far. Many students in her shoes certainly haven’t been so inspirational.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that her skirt was too short.

And it doesn’t change my question: do we still live in a man’s world? And is that even the issue?

Our school works very hard to have high standards and to help our students. We pride ourselves on our links to businesses within the community, for helping students gain employability skills. We have been tightening up on uniform and constantly working to up the rigour within our classrooms. However, one issue I have is that we haven’t had consistent buy-in from our staff with regards to standards. Some staff think it’s kind to “let students off the hook” when they don’t get it 100% correct–when uniform isn’t what it should be (students ‘accidentally’ wear trainers or ‘forget to change’ their trainers or ‘forget’ their blazers and are allowed to go through their days as normal, rather than spend them in isolation for failure to adhere to rules). I remember a string of emails at the start of the year from our 6th form Head asking for help getting students to adhere to uniform rules. Many students rebelled. “Why can’t I wear skinny black trousers?” one year 12 student asked and refused to change.

What really frustrated me is that some members of staff started to give up. What still frustrates me is when I see students P3 or 4 and challenge them on their shoes or blazer and they get mad that “I’ve been wearing them all day and no one has said anything!” This is not as it should be and, most importantly, will not help our students in the long run. We should always challenge our students when they break the rules because we should believe they are capable of following the rules. Every time. Because no matter their upbringing, backgrounds or challenges in life, they are capable of rising to the challenges we set. And if we set them high enough and enforce them with love and a consistently caring attitude of compassion, they might just understand the bigger picture. They might just be able to do what more middle class students do on a daily basis.

Otherwise, we get situations of year 12 girls in hysterical tears, and rightly so, when she’s told she’d be “an embarrassment” if she wore her outfit to the evening ceremony. As if she should know what she’s supposed to be wearing when we haven’t been consistently enforcing our uniform standards or challenging her outfit before “it matters.”

This is wrong.

And it doesn’t matter if it’s a man’s world or not–and I argued with my friend that indeed it is still a man’s world, and that we still need to acknowledge this so we can intentionally combat it–this girl needs us to have consistently enforced high expectations so she can attend her next awards ceremony with her head held high, with the knowledge that she’s wearing the right thing because she’s been explicitly trained by her school in what and how to wear the right thing. No surprises, no embarrassments, her social, moral, and cultural needs have been met by us and she’s on an equal footing with her more economically advantaged peers.

Later that evening, I watched this girl courageously step onto the stage in front of hundreds of people to accept her well-earned award, brave smile–and longer dress, with newly purchased blazer–in place over top, and I applauded her as heartily as I could. She’d obviously turned down the offer of a pants suit, though she’d changed. But she’d also felt an unnecessary blow that day from teachers truly trying to help. The help just didn’t help because we as a school hadn’t trained her and consistently held her to high enough standards of dress for the rest of the year.

What a load of work that would add to the staff at the start of a year: expectations to hold students to account every time, any time. Unless the staff is 100% on board with the vision this entails, it won’t work. It can’t work. It’s about having high expectations, and our staff needs to believe our students, poor or disadvantaged as many of them are, can rise to these standards.

But you never know when it will matter. Having high expectations at all times is the only way to enact change for our pupils. Education is likely the only chance for social mobility for some of our students. I just hope this young lady hasn’t been too jaded today to keep striving for success. If anyone deserves it, it’s her.

Sad thing is, not only will she have to circumnavigate “a man’s world,” but she must first finish her childhood weaving through well-meaning, hard-working educators who don’t always hold her or her peers to high enough standards.

The world is a treacherous place for poor girls.

 

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