When we are not accepted, bodies are open to violence. Violence is thereby a symptom of anxiety for those threatened by their inadequacies of not reading others’.
-sj Miller in “A Queer Literacy Framework Promoting (A)Gender and (A)Sexuality Self-Determination and Justice”
For those of us working in K-12 education, the risk for violence to the bodies of the children in our classroom should constantly be at the forefront. K-12 education is mandatory, so whatever violence to which children are susceptible is entirely our concern and domain. Bullying is not simply a fact of life to which children should acclimate; it is a power dynamic, often physically imposed, that endangers the bodies of particular children. Bullying does not occur in a vacuum, however. In schools, we set up the social parameters. These behaviors are okay or not okay. These languages are okay or not okay. These identities or ways of being are okay or not okay. Once we have done that, established a hierarchy of social identities, bullying and other schoolyard violence will enforce those hierarchies.
If we encounter violence in our schools and classrooms, our first question should be: what have we done to create the social conditions for this violence? To clarify, in what ways have our behaviors, mindsets, curricula, teaching strategies, and language indicated that we do not value (and thereby condone violence toward) a particular kind of student?
If we can ask these questions without self-defensiveness and with real inquiry into the social conditions of our schools, we will be able to identify the institutional structures that mandated the violence.
Regarding “the real world”
Sometimes adults defend violence toward children by arguing that violence in the real world will be commonplace and that we must teach them to cope with it. By making such arguments, we are perpetrating the violent structures in spaces beyond schools. We are encouraging our students not to rage against or speak against violence but to accept and condone it.
Schools are not preparatory spaces. We are not getting children ready for “the next thing.” School is a real place where children are real people. The violence and behaviors we advocate in school do not “prepare” children to cope with the world outside of school. Instead, we actively create the hierarchies, privileges, biases, and power dynamics that exist in spaces outside of schools. If we want some other way of being to happen in “the real world,” we should put our energy toward making that way of being happen in schools.
Not just bullying
Of course, the violence that occurs in school, the violence that we require, condone, and participate in, is not just bullying. It is also apparent in the stereotypes that get perpetrated, the labeling and gatekeeping that we do, and in the teaching practices we use. When we decide what kind of reading, learning, and educational experiences students deserve based on test scores or formative assessment or other forms of tracking, we are committing violence against the children who are oppressed by these practices. When we fail to use texts that represent our children and their communities, when we don’t imagine that our children can attend college or succeed in school, when we value certain types of responses as “authentic,” we commit violence against these children. This intellectual and emotional violence sometimes results in physical violence and almost always in continued oppression.
Empathy and consent
I am not arguing that we should have no mandates or requirements in school. But perhaps we should undergo a radical reconsideration of what we do mandate. What we require is what we are likely to get, after all. I would put forth that that two domains we barely teach or learn at all in schools would constitute a starting point for such a radical course change.
Empathy, for teachers, would mean considering the feelings, positions, and needs of each student, their families, and even the community in which the school is situated. For students, this would mean consideration of the feelings, positions, and needs of their classmates, teachers, and communities. What would conflict resolution look like if we mandated empathy? What would collaborative learning and classroom interactions look like if empathy was the norm? In our current system, oppressed people must constantly practice empathy already. In a world where black people are murdered by police officers on the regular, constant vigilance about the emotional status of white authority figures is necessary. Similarly, women are often hyper-aware of the moods of men, partially because they are socialized for conflict minimalism, but also because the risk women face for physical danger from men is much higher than the reverse. Queer people, too, are so often the targets of physical, verbal, and emotional violence that they must maintain an awareness of dominant straight mindsets at all times. The quote I used at the opening of this post is taken from a Queer theorist, in fact. By all this, I am saying that empathy must not only be the less powerful empathizing with the powerful. Teachers must begin this revolution by empathizing with their students.
Consent is really antithetical to the compulsive attendance of K-12 schools. What would consent look like in school? What would grading look like? What would social interactions be like between students and between students and teachers if interactions were not requirements but invitations?
We no longer have the luxury to sit around sighing about violence in the world. It is time for us think about how we are mandating systems of violence in schools and take action to make schools different.