A few years ago, once I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that taking the time to get a doctorate in the humanities is impracticable in today’s academic job market, I decided that I would get an MA and then teach English at the high school level. I can’t say I was ever thrilled by the idea of teaching teenagers, but since finding full-time work at a community college is increasingly difficult (as it is at any kind of college or university), I concluded that it was the only financially viable option, assuming I wanted to teach English at all. So, after failing to land a position at a private school immediately after finishing graduate school, I decided to become certified in order to improve my odds. And in the course of the certification process, I applied to work as a substitute teacher—partly for the experience, partly to complete the requisite number of “field hours” my state requires.
I should say at the outset that as a substitute, and as someone new to teaching, I expected to have classroom management problems. What I did not expect was to be sexually harassed by the students. I’m probably naive, but not once—not in all the certification training I completed, not in the substitute orientation—was this mentioned as a possibility, and yet, it has been an absolutely pervasive problem; I have not, as of this moment, managed to make it through a full day without becoming the target of some kind of unwanted attention. My first day was particularly bad. It was not one or two remarks but—at least in some class periods—an almost constant stream of words and actions on the part of more than one student. The following is just a sample:
“Are you religious? Because you’re the answer to my prayers” (one of many corny pickup lines)
(After introducing myself as Ms. —): “Can I be Mr. —?”
“Are you scared, being in a room with so many guys?”
“I’m legal,” by way of propositioning me.
(After a student put his lips, open-mouthed, against a pane of glass in the door as I unlocked it to let him into the room): “You were supposed to put your lips there.”
To be clear, I’m not particularly angry at the students themselves. I don’t like the harassment, of course, but it’s not like it’s something I’ve never encountered before, and it is infinitely more obnoxious in cases where the perpetrators are, without doubt, in a position to know better (looking at you, college students who catcalled me when I was thirteen or fourteen and taking a walk with my father. Also, looking at you, father who seemed to take that as flattering proof of his daughter’s attractiveness, rather than a) offensive, and b) creepy as hell, considering how old I was at the time). These are teenage boys in a conservative town; I get that gender equity isn’t going to be high on the list of topics they’re familiar with.
What I simply can’t stand, though, is the position the administration tacitly places you in as a female instructor. It’s hardly a secret that many schools and districts have a willfully blind attitude towards adolescent sexuality (“We can’t teach sex ed! They’re innocent children—we might corrupt them!”), but what I had never really considered was how that attitude might alter the experience of sexual harassment when the harassers themselves are adolescent students. To be blunt, it entirely validates all of the misogynistic myths about sexual harassment and assault that, in other circumstances, it has become at least less acceptable to voice. After all, they are just children; you are the adult. If sexual remarks were made, they must have somehow been solicited by you. What were you wearing? How did you respond to the comments? Could anything you did have been interpreted as somehow welcoming the advances? Have you ever had impure thoughts? Conclusion: you are dirty, it was your own fault, go home and think on your sins.
It doesn’t really matter whether this is your usual train of thought when subjected to harassment (although I’m sure that for many women, it unfortunately is); as a teacher, or substitute teacher, the training you receive virtually guarantees that this will be your response. You are told, repeatedly, that everything that happens in the classroom is your responsibility. You are told that students only misbehave when the teacher allows it to happen. You are told that students naturally defer to authority, and that any students who act out must have sensed weakness. As a sub in particular, you are told that if you cannot manage the classroom and are forced to send students to the principal, you will be fired for failing to maintain order. And because you are given no hint that you may find yourself dealing with sexual harassment, you are forced to assume that this is just like any other student misbehavior, at least in the eyes of the administration—your fault, your responsibility, your problem. In reality of course, the responsibility for dealing with (or coping with, as the case may be) sexual harassment often falls on the woman, but whenever that sad truth becomes, effectively, institutionalized policy—when women are forced to manage their own harassment or risk being fired—I think there is ample justification for outrage.
Of course, the idea that female teachers are responsible for whatever fantasies their students indulge in is really just part and parcel of an educational system that refuses to acknowledge any kind of systemic problems—be it misogyny, racism, socioeconomic inequality, etc. At least in Texas, would-be teachers are told repeatedly that a good teacher can make up for anything that might be holding a student back—poverty, family troubles, etc. If a student fails, or misbehaves, it’s not because of administrative policies, or a stultifying curriculum, or the fact that they’re forced to work to help support their families and have no time left over for studying; it’s all on the teacher. So, really, why would schools regard sexism any differently? Why wonder whether male students might harbor attitudes that would make them think that all females are there for the taking? It’s so much easier to simply ignore the fact that while a female teacher may be nominally in charge, the balance of power cuts very much the other way when it comes to gender—even when the “men” are adolescent boys. But of course, if we actually acknowledged any of this, we might have to actually devote some time and money to addressing systemic sexism, racism, etc. and, again, it’s just so much easier to comfort ourselves with the idea that a good teacher can fix everything. It’s aggressive individualism at its worst—the idea that, since nothing can stand in the way of a strong will, all it takes to change anything is a bunch of strong wills cheerfully plowing over whatever problems stand in their way. And if you’re not strong-willed—if you can’t or don’t want to put up with sexual harassment with little to no support—well, too bad. You have nothing to offer, there’s no place for you, and you should just go hide your face in shame.
The upshot of all of this, personally, is that I have refocused my attention on applying for adjunct positions at community colleges. Yes, there’s plenty of sexism in higher education, and yes, pay for part-time instructors is nowhere near a living wage, but hey, maybe I’ll at least be able to sleep in past 5:00 AM.