“I hope to give you a deeper insight into how you as educators can interact with these bright but damaged youth and how the education system is the place to build life-saving bridges.”
Taken from Māia Goldsmith’s activator session at uLearn21, this is the second of a two-part blog that shares Māia’s story.
This blog contains sensitive content, which may be disturbing or traumatising to some audiences. Discretion is advised. If you or someone you know may need support please contact Sexual Abuse Education NZ https://sexualabuse.org.nz/
Thoughts for your practice
To me, my experiences are just my life, so I sometimes struggle to view it as more than a story of overcoming barriers and beating the odds. I am also not an educator, so I am cautious about telling you how to do your jobs. However, in my discussions with educators, academics, students (and others who have found themselves an education system outcast), there are some recurring, interconnected themes. So, I have put together some focus areas that will hopefully be useful for your practice.
Be real. The first and easiest thing I can say is be real when interacting with these kids – don’t b***s***. Don’t ‘protect’ them from exposure by excluding them from the realities around them. These kids don’t have adults that sugarcoat things around them, they don’t believe in fairytales and happy endings, they are aware, exposed, and treated as adults in many cases. As sad as it might be, these kids have lived adult experiences. Sometimes, efforts to tiptoe around situations and soften blows can be patronising, offensive and even exclude us from our own lives. It puts us into a position in which we feel we are not heard, understood or ‘seen’. For kids who are used to things just happening to them, this can negatively impact their sense of autonomy over their own bodies and lives.
I speak here largely in relation to the handling of my sexual assault. There were procedures that needed to be followed, of course, but the teachers were so shocked, so hurt by MY experience, that they avoided me. They pulled back, left me out and didn’t inform or support me through any of what happened that day. Admittedly, they didn’t know how, but the police weren’t great either and the resulting damage was a huge blow that really separated me from the school system.
Active participants rather than passive recipients. This phrase should be familiar to some of you. It represents a way of viewing children and young people as active agents within their own lives, capable of understanding their surroundings and making decisions about themselves. These are not dumb, naïve little kids. Many of them have raised siblings or spoken in courtrooms – the effort to keep them as bystanders in their own lives can be internally conflicting and frustrating. Be real and honest, involving them in the processes, punishment, rewards, decisions that impact them. Give them a chance, showing you see them as active participants in their own lives.
This is much closer to the way things operate in alternative education (it’s a huge part of why they interact so well in that environment). So many kids just have things happen to them, they have no say in where, when or why. Continuing that experience in places of education grows more feelings of anger, anxiety, resentment and rebellion. See these kids as being active contributors in their own existence and they will start to show you how capable they are.
Compromise and flexibility. The next key platform to interact and build relationships with these kids is in your ability to be flexible and compromise. The power dynamics between students and teachers are created in the execution of the rules, which dictates how they see themselves within institutions. The punishment processes in school either provide for and allow, or withdraw and remove, the things these kids do engage with and enjoy at school. One of the first and favourite punishments is to remove extra-curricular activities or total engagement in classes. Being flexible and compromising is a way to encourage better behaviour and engagement in other areas.
Here are three examples of how compromising and being flexible has worked.
- A young girl I’ve supported recently has been battling molestation charges with her own father in Court. Unfortunately, she and her mother are losing this battle, which has begun to negatively impact her life. This girl was caught drinking and smoking during a lunch period at school. The school responded by removing her from touch rugby and kapa haka, not able to return until she can ‘behave’ for three months. All of her friends are involved in these activities – and they are her biggest support network. This 14 year old now just wants to leave school completely and I can see the anger growing in her, familiar to my own. Let down by the justice system, rejected by the school system, resentment and anger grows and eventually causes a clash.The makings of an ‘at-risk’ youth quickly becomes the making of a criminal. For any of you who know the history of gangs and gang creation in New Zealand – this, these messages given to broken kids, is where it starts. She’s a smart, mature, reasonable young hine, but she has days where she can’t focus in class. Days where she just wants to cry and scream about what her father has done to her and the situation she’s in. Days where she wants to be mad, or escape through alcohol and drugs – survive. The school system does not allow for these kinds of days and it certainly doesn’t reward her for all the other days she does hold it all together.I understand this girl has now left school, she couldn’t find any interest or reason to stay. To me this was a total waste, avoidable if the school had responded to her outbursts with awhi instead of rejection.
- My youngest brother was put on a special sports programme at school, a sort of sports academy for talented kids. The other kids in the class were born and bred success stories and very, very wealthy. At the time my mother was working over 60 hours a week and he was essentially raising himself (another common occurrence for many kids). He was often late, wrong shoes, wrong socks, untidy hair, not cleanly shaven – my brother had curly locks down the center of his back until the age of 16. As we all know there is a clash between what is a ‘tidy uniform’ and the ability to participate – well, he was berated for it.
One particular day he was late because he had been up till 4 am talking to his best mate (who was a kid in the foster care system due to suicide). They called a disciplinary meeting, which I attended, to discuss his future on the programme.Like most Māori boys, my brother didn’t speak, he didn’t offer any defence – he didn’t feel he mattered enough for them to listen. I explained why he had been late that day, but also pointed out he was the only Māori on that course. He was probably the only one who didn’t have a father, whose father had been in jail for violent crimes his whole life. This young tane was being raised by a single mother struggling to hold down a mortgage and he was doing the best he could. The obstacles that existed for him as a 15 year old, to show up at school at 9 am every day, clean, tidy and with a packed lunch, were not present for the other kids in his class.I let them know he’d made it further in high school than anyone in our family. I said they needed to awhi and support this young man more than all the other students, because his journey to be there was more of a broken road than a golden pathway. The teacher was shocked and showed extreme admiration for my brother. She’d had no idea, and did everything I suggested to help him engage. She made huge compromises for him and he passed the course with flying colours – he is now studying towards an automotive engineering qualification. This was a good result, considering before the meeting he was keen to just leave school and work down at the docks.
- During my own time at high school there were many teachers that hated me, really. They’d withdraw me for walking in the class wrong, searching for reasons to berate me, and to be fair, I was always doing lots of things wrong. There were a few that stood out for good reasons, one in particular was my P.E. teacher. He nicknamed me ‘trouble’ and never kicked me out of class. He would know if I wasn’t sober, or that I was late because I actually wasn’t going to come. He would just look at me and say ‘three laps, go’, making me run three laps of the courts before I was allowed to participate.This mattered. To me, he was acknowledging I had come to class, that I had disrespected the rules, but said ‘fine, you can be here but you must give me extra’. Rather than rejection this was more of a challenge – he was saying you can do your b***s***, it won’t interrupt my class, I still want you to be here but you have to do something for me. It was a small compromise that made the world of difference to our relationship. This man was loved and respected by all the naughty students (and largely resented by other teachers). That was a strange dynamic but they also did not like how he bent the rules to save troubled kids. I always showed up for his class, always stayed and behaved. I respected him, because of the respect he showed me.
The more rigid and immovable the rules and expectations (and your enforcement of them), the more likely they are to break. It’s setting the bar way up there and saying ‘this is it, if you’re not good enough, you’re out’. When these kids have to jump seven other bars just to get to that bar, it sets the tone that they won’t ever make it. If we accept the big things are absolute no’s – fighting, drugs, alcohol, violence – we can maybe try to understand those small things, like being berated for dress codes, lateness, make-up and language. Doing this just sends small but consistent messages, ‘you don’t belong here and you’re not good enough’. A little compromise and flexibility on the small things will involve kids in their own existence, lessening the feelings of exclusion and isolation that eventually lead to them opting out completely.
Labelling and rejection is the third area of interaction I wanted to discuss. It looks at how, as educators, your actions and attitudes towards these kids can label, categorise and separate them, as well as encourage feelings of rejection from mainstream society.
The stories mentioned before are so familiar to me, of kids so obviously slipping through the cracks. How all the wrong decisions are being made to stop them progress, when something so small can really make such a difference to their self-worth. Some of you may not think it is your ‘job’ to fix these kids, or that rules are rules and should be followed and respected. Some may think that’s the standard and those who do not fit should get out. (Honestly, I’ve seen that is how many teachers conduct themselves.) But the impact on these kids and their engagement can be massive. To me, if a little understanding, a little compassion, a little compromise can change the way a child sees themselves and help their ability to belong, then why wouldn’t you.
Misunderstanding, or lack of regard to, the real-life situations these kids are in plays a huge role in how they begin to view themselves as outsiders. Outcasting, rejection and the use of terms like ‘at-risk’ and ‘troubled youths’ not only makes us feel categorised and separated, but also helps us categorise ourselves, sometimes even encouraging us to play the role. In criminology this is referred to as the ‘Labelling Theory’. Proposed by Frank Tanenbaum in the 1930s, this theory argues that the action of labelling an individual as a ‘criminal’ heavily influences that individual’s self-image and can provoke more deviant behavior to occur until the label is fulfilled. Perhaps there are similar impacts happening here. Terminology and categories are useful for practice workbooks and ticking boxes – but in real life they are perhaps perpetuating.
Throughout my years of getting in trouble, it was the messages of correction about the small things that really solidified my understanding of belonging and rejection. I knew smoking and wagging were bad, but I didn’t know wearing make-up at 13 was. Or that playing music while I walked down the hallways was unacceptable, or why. Kicking me out of class for these things just made me leave the school grounds and have a smoke – prove I didn’t want to be there anyway. Rejection, from the system and adults, really cements our sense of where we belong. If we are constantly labelled and told to get out, we will believe those labels and believe we belong on the outer.
For some, if they are honest with themselves, that is what they are trying to achieve. I have had hideous debates with very privileged educators who believe it is their job to deliver education, and nothing else. Some teachers truly lack empathy and understanding towards us, some just don’t like us or our ‘type’, and we know that. Many teachers come from a different background, they do not understand, nor do they want to, nor do they think they should. Friends who are teachers have told me of staffroom arguments about who would be ‘burdened’ with taking the whānau class – with many refusing, saying they did not want to be bothered with ‘those kids’. Nothing like setting a tone of rejection before the school year has even started.
Understanding and accepting position and difference. This brings me to your own reflection and your ability to acknowledge the differences in position. These stories may seem shocking to you, but they are not uncommon. And they represent a whole heap of kids that are being left behind by our education system.
They are stories and feelings shared by the majority of people I grew up with and associate with as an adult. I did a small statistical analysis of ten girls I considered close friends throughout my childhood. Five of us had experienced sexual abuse as children, three of those before the age of 14. Seven had grown up in households where drugs were a common occurrence. All except one had regular exposure to heavy drinking. Eight of us had violence in the home, directed at us in various forms. Four of us had immediate family gang connections and three of us had experienced other traumas such as death of a sibling or parent.
Of these same girls, five had engaged in self-harming, two regularly and at times it was life threatening. Five engaged in regular drug use and continued to do so as adults, all have used alcohol and cigarettes. Four became mothers before the age of 20. Only three made it past year 11, and only one graduated from high school. I am the only one with any qualification above NCEA level 3. These statistics are reflective of most of the people I know, most of the people related to me and all of the people I have found throughout my life. They may not apply to you or the people you know, but I ask you to be aware of them!
Kids like me grow up with a mistrust and fear about institutions and authority, police cars, police stations, CYFS, teachers, counsellors, social workers, all the different waiting rooms, all the shades of blue and grey. They all become one and the same to us, and they are often perceived as enemies to most of the adults around us. Their presence is associated with turmoil, violence, removal, separation, insecurity. We do not trust or welcome them. Unlike most of our peers.
Places of education, classrooms and teachers, become similar representations to us and are institutions that can either soften or further engrain these feelings. Six hours a day, five days a week, for 10 – 13 years will have some impact on growing minds. This place has the potential to save kids, to heavily influence their experiences and understandings of mainstream society. More importantly, to influence how they see their own position in these places. Even when I went to Uni, I never really viewed myself as a ‘uni student’ and I certainly wasn’t anything like the kids I was there with. The cultural and conduct differences were so deeply ingrained it was like two different worlds, a total world of privilege with an absolute unawareness of the privilege they lived in.
Which brings me to diversity, and what is considered acceptable and usable diversity. Diversity in ethnic culture, gender, sexuality and ability are all seen as positive and are generally encouraged. But I do not find the same warm welcome when it comes to diversity of class culture. Even at Uni, there are people of all colours, many successful young Māori, Pasifika, Asian, Gay, Non-binary, Trans, people with disabilities. But no poor people, no people raised in chaos. Out of 300 kids in my Criminal Justice papers, only two of us had sat in the back of a cop car, had been in an interrogation room. I was one of the only ones on campus with a community services card, who even knew what one was. I was one of the only ones who’d lived experiences like mine, making my ability to analyse and understand issues very different to my peers.
It made me aware of how untouchable University was to kids like me. None of my friends or their families had ever been to Uni. Yet all the kids there had at least one or both parents, if not a sibling or aunt or uncle, with Bachelor qualifications. Generations of success and privilege that does indeed span across ethnicity, sex, gender and ability, as long as they are all of the same class. Even the Māori, the majority of them Kai Tahu and long lines of success and wealth. Highly respectable whānau and exceptional young Māori, but so different to all the Māori kids I grew up with.
When you think of diversity and inclusion, be sure you are not just accepting usable diversity. Seek diversity that makes room for those a little rough around the edges. Those who don’t have the same views and experiences and have not walked the same paths. It’s deeper than ethnic or culture, it’s socioeconomic diversity. Really try to understand how the different paths and experiences affect how these people interact with and envision themselves in mainstream society. Those paths and experiences are different from yours, therefore you will find differences in language, meaning, interpretation and conduct (the same way you do for ethnic or other cultures). This also requires an understanding of your own position, what you understand, what you know, what you can do as a provider of education within the mainstream systems. You are the controller of the interaction with us kids on the other side. Your effort to bridge this gap in position is what makes the difference. Acknowledge, understand and seek to change it.
So, things get a bit messy over 40 minutes, so these final four points simplified, looks like this,
Be real. These young people may be children in age, but they are dealing with very adult situations. They’ve had a lifetime of simply being recipients and need to be treated as active participants in what is happening to them, especially in areas like education. Sharing with these young people, about their actions, situations, consequences and options, will help them feel involved and responsible for how things are playing out in their lives. They will be more likely to engage with their surroundings. Be real with them, and they will be with you.
Compromise and flexibility. How are you enforcing the standards, are they always necessary? Are they going to achieve engagement? Is there room for compromise and what might the impact of that be? Will it allow for this child to feel involved and valued just enough to keep them involved? Compromise builds relationships and mutual respect, if you can get it to work well. It may keep a kid in school just a few more years and even if it doesn’t, they will remember your effort and that someone tried.
Rejection and labelling. How are you being mindful of your own actions and interactions with and towards these young people? Your words, actions or opinions can heavily impact how these kids view themselves and even influence their actions. Are you further ingraining feelings of exclusion, rejection and outcasting? Or are you actively working to improve them?
Understanding and accepting position and difference. Understand and accept these kids have very different lives to what you know. They view society and its representatives differently, in many cases as hostile. You may not be able to understand, but at least accept, and leave that space open for difference. A difference that involves class, more than culture. Understanding this is key to bridging the huge socioeconomic gaps we see in society.
Reflect on your own position, your own understanding. As educators, reflect on your ability to make an effort to change how the system is interacting with these young people and positively impact their lives.
I leave you with a suggestion on how to change and improve meaningful practice in education. It comes from an admirable and inspiring role model of mine I was honoured to work under during my time at UC, Professor Angus Macfarlane.
If you or someone you know may need support please contact Sexual Abuse Education NZ – https://sexualabuse.org.nz/