An Open Letter to My Former Secondary School – & Any Teacher Who Won’t Let Girls go to the Bathroom

I believe the children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way… 

Jk, jk. But listen, Whitney had a point. Last week, my 14-year-old sisters, Ruby and Amber, were collected from their school after a male teacher roared at them and wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom when they were both crying. One of them had spilled water and didn’t immediately own up to it. Eventually she admitted it, saying she was sorry, and that she would clean it up. The teacher screamed at her and when she started crying, asking if she could go the bathroom, he said no and continued to shout in her face. She told him not to shout and asked again if she could go to the bathroom, saying she felt sick. He not only refused, but also told the teachers of her next two classes not to allow her to go to the bathroom. She got very distressed, my mam was called, and she was picked up.

I know teenagers. They are highly emotional, moody beings but that shouldn’t mean that their feelings aren’t valid and should be dismissed. I have worked with children and teenagers of all ages for nearly ten years now. I’ve taught drama in schools, youth clubs and youth theatres. I have directed shows with them and devised pieces of work with them, always based on their own experiences and relationship to the world around them. I understand how difficult, frustrating and just fucking exhausting it can be. But how is shouting at a young girl and humiliating her in front of her peers instilling any kind of respect or responsibility?

The school in question is the one that I also attended. I had a mostly good experience there and most teachers liked me. It’s a small, Irish-speaking school. It was operated by Christian Brothers for years, and although they do not run it now, they still own it, as far as I know. The teacher in question is a young teacher who wasn’t there when I attended. I’ll just call him MB.

MB, I understand that this may only be a job for you, but when you are 14 years old, school is your life. And we all know how incredibly hard and shit being a teenager can be. Or have you forgotten? As well as having an influx of hormones being mass-produced in your body suddenly, you are dealing with things in and out of school for the first time ever.

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Take the simplest of examples: girls are menstruating for the first time. It is so embarrassing and difficult to talk about at that age. You haven’t figured out your cycle, haven’t determined the patterns yet; when it will come, how bad it will be, etc. A girl may put up her hand and ask to go the bathroom and be refused. I remember many times being told that I’d already been to the bathroom and that I couldn’t go for the rest of the class. I was so afraid that I would bleed through my tights. I felt sick having to run to the bathroom as fast as I could at the end of every class. It’s completely humiliating. And I don’t understand why it’s often a teacher’s default to say no.[pullquote]How is shouting at a young girl and humiliating her in front of her peers instilling any kind of respect or responsibility?[/pullquote]

Everything you experience as a teenager is heightened. A boy ignoring you can leave you broken-hearted. Arguing with a friend can be devastating and leave you not wanting to get out of bed. Even a pass-remarkable comment by a teacher can have you crying for a week. These things happen daily in schools. That is before we even get to home life.

Although I didn’t have a very stable family life, Ruby and Amber do. But not every student is as lucky. There are students whose parents are drug addicts. There are young people who have a parent in prison. There are many teenagers who have been sexually abused including those who have not told anyone. There are teenagers who come from physically and/or emotionally abusive homes that you’ll never even know about. There are families like mine growing up, who are poor, who have no money and who can’t go on school trips or buy new books or uniforms. I was penalised many times as a teenager at this school for not having a book I was meant to have because my mother couldn’t afford it. I would always make up excuses. I was mortified.

So, MB, although this may just be a job for you, this is young people’s lives that you are affecting each day. You are not just teaching them maths or Irish or geography. You are forming the sort of people they are going to be. It can take just one passionate teacher to inspire a young person and help them decide what they want to do when they leave school. It can also take one bad teacher to make you loathe a subject that often, years later, you will rediscover and become fascinated with.

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I know, I know, we can’t all be Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds but what I have learned, especially with Ruby and Amber, is often the simplest approach is to address a teenager as you would like to be addressed. I mean, they are, like, kind of humans after all. I know if my boss called me out in front of everyone I worked with or made me feel ashamed or told me I’d fucked up, I’d be humiliated. If he screamed in my face, I would most certainly get upset and walk out. So again, why should it be different for teenagers? If someone is acting moody or despondent, it’s not that helpful to get angry at them.

My two younger sisters are the most informed, open-minded 14 year olds I have ever met. They are very funny and have a wicked sense of humour, which I’m sure teachers must hate but they make me laugh so much. They are self-proclaimed feminists and are the first to call people out on sexism or racism or any other shitty-ism there is. They always stand up to bullies and bitches, even when it’s their friends who are being the bullies and bitches (á la Neville Longbottom getting his 10 points for Gryffindor at the end of Philosopher’s Stone). They take a huge interest in social justice and both want to somehow bring that into a career when they graduate. Did you know that MB? Have you ever asked them anything about themselves? Or listened to them? Or is it easier for you to tell them to be quiet? Or penalise them for spilling water?[pullquote] It can also take one bad teacher to make you loathe a subject that often, years later, you will rediscover and become fascinated with.[/pullquote]

I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher for Irish and History. He had such a passion for the subject, and made it relatable to everybody. He promoted discussion and he made sure every voice and opinion was heard. He had a good sense of humour and we laughed a lot in class. He was fair but he was not a push over. Every single student looked forward to this class. Of course, not everyone is going to love every teacher though. I get it. Every teacher has a different temperament, a different personality, a different approach. But it can’t be shouting in the face of a girl. No matter what they’ve done or not done – it can’t be that. It’s not helpful, it’s not appropriate and it’s just not fucking nice. You wouldn’t tolerate that from somebody, MB, you wouldn’t appreciate it. So please, don’t expect young men and women to feel any different.

I understand that so many teachers are over-worked and underpaid and it’s shit. Nonetheless, the students should not suffer because of this. They should not have to take on your stress or anger or frustrations. Your responsibility does not begin and end with you teaching a curriculum. You must think beyond that. You must love what you do. You must come up with new and interesting way of teaching your students and making them want to learn.

It’s not easy, but it can be done. It means not shutting them down though. It means showing them the respect that you want in return. It means letting them go to the bathroom if they need to use the bathroom. It means engaging them and letting them be a part of the process. It means believing that they, the children, are the future, MB. It means teaching them well and letting them lead the way.

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