In the Blog
System Fail: Challenging Oppressive Teachers in the Classroom
by Sarah Mangle
Note: I wrote a shorter of version of this piece for the recent print issue of Shameless. This blog article expands the printed article.
I was invited to respond to the question: “My teacher keeps making oppressive comments in my classroom. What should I do?”
Suffering through classes “taught” by teachers who deliver hateful, stereotypical, racist, abliest, sexist and otherwise problematic content as course material or offhanded comments is an all too common experience and can be exhausting, frustrating and demoralizing.
When this happens to you, there are many choices you can make in that moment and later on. You can discuss the comment with the teacher in the moment that it happens, or after class. You can also choose to challenge the system, this teacher, and this situation formally or informally. You can switch classes, or drop the class and get the educational requirements you need in another way. You might drop out entirely and learn different things in other ways. You can sit through the classes without raising questions in class or making a formal or informal complaint, get through the course and move on.
FIRST, PERSONAL THINGS: About four and a half years ago, I was in the Early Childhood Education program for one semester at Conestoga College, which is in a suburb of Kitchener. I was visibly queer and an artistic weirdo and I felt really isolated being in the halls of Conestoga and in the classes. I felt like a zombie. I was annoyed by a lot of the course material, which was false and oversimplified, assuming the students were incompetent and not capable of learning.
In one of my classes - a course claiming to be focused on advocacy and “diversity” in the classroom, my teacher made an offhanded trans and intersex phobic comment, which erased the possibility that transsexual, transgendered or intersex people existed in the world at all, let alone in early childhood settings. At the end of class I exhaled, stood up, and walked up to her packing up her things.
I said, ” I want to talk to you about this comment that you made.” (And I quoted her direct comment)
She laughed in my face, quite loudly. And I proceeded to say,
“There are intersex people and transsexual people and transgendered people and those people are going to be our coworkers, parents at the daycares where we will be working, and the kids.”
She would not make eye contact with me. She said, “Of course, but we would take that on a case by case basis”
I responded, “I don’t agree with you”.
She was fiddling with things on her desk and she said, “Okay, Okay”.
There was all this adrenaline running through my body and I felt really freaked out, but I said, “This was a class about advocacy. You talked about sticking up for children and their families. I hope you never say that comment again.” And I walked away.
While I was talking to her, I couldn’t control the loudness of my voice. I think I kind of yelled, because I was feeling so stressed out and weird and she was kind of scared of me but after that she used the terms “all genders” for the rest of the semester. I knew that she didn’t really understand what I was talking about, and I didn’t want to educate her because she wasn’t actually open to it. I had just scared her into using correct language but I felt a small amount of success.
I was offered a job doing community radio near the end of that semester and I bailed on that college program. I didn’t want to be a zombie anymore. It didn’t feel worth it. But, I did still want to get my Early Childhood Education Diploma, so a year and a half later I started an online program and did that so I never had to go to class, and could continue to work fulltime. I’m very happy I dropped out of Conestoga at that time and I’m happy I found another way to avoid classrooms to get my Diploma.
It has been so useful for me to have friends and partners to complain to, who validated my feelings when faced with teachers making oppressive comments. This has proved especially valuable for me in cases where I have felt isolated in the class, with no one to turn to, to roll my eyes with or to back up my retort to the teacher in the moment. Friends have helped me imagine new ways the world can be, and take a step back to see the whole situation instead of being caught in the specifics of these classroom conflicts. It has also been awesome to organize alternative educational experiences for people to counteract the bad education we were receiving.
When I was in high school in rural Nova Scotia, my friends and I started a group called Youth for Social Justice which was loosely connected to similar youth activism groups happening in Halifax, and elsewhere across the province. We met once a week to complain and plan projects. We hid feminist positive body image zine flyers in women’s magazines in the grocery stores and pharmacies. We put on an anti-homophobia play that we wrote ourselves and toured to different schools. We were entirely youth/teenager run. Some nights we just cuddled, and talked without making any bigger plans.
This was my first introduction to the idea of social justice and a certain kind of radicalism that I could personally relate to. It validated my feelings and helped me begin to deconstruct systems of power around me. It was so helpful to make friends. Those friends really did change my life.
CHALLENGING THE OFFICIAL SCHOOL SYSTEMS: In order to give you the most accurate and strategic advice, and to get the inside scoop on the policies and procedures that are designed to protect your rights and how well these systems actually work, I spoke to teachers of high school, college and CEGEP, as well as a youth worker and college advocacy person.
IN HIGH SCHOOL: Many of the teachers I spoke to suggested first discussing observations and frustrations with a trustworthy adult: a teacher, parent, staff at a youth organization, anybody who could advocate for you and potentially bring up your concerns confidentially with the teacher you are having problems with.
The official way to make a complaint about this teacher is to report your concerns about your teacher to your vice principal, who has the legal responsibility to follow up with both you and your teacher. Keep in mind that vice principals can often be dismissive (I heard this information from the teachers and youth worker I spoke with).
Also, the trustee and superintendent of the school have a lot of power and the principal answers to them. Bring your concerns to them if you don’t get anywhere with your vice principal. If you have a good guidance counsellor at your school, you can try to switch out of that class so you can make your case without fear of being bullied by the teacher.
IN CEGEP (Quebec):
There is a grievances (aka complaints) procedure to file complaints with the administration against the teacher. The administration will decide whether or not a hearing will happen. If a hearing goes forward there is a committee of teachers from other departments who decide on a resolution after hearing from you and the teacher (most likely separately).
There is also a student Ombudsperson who takes complaints. Generally these are referred to the chair of the department, who decides how to proceed. Bring your concerns to the Ombudsperson, if you have a good case and the administration is not granting you a hearing.
Also, issues of discrimination and oppression that are reported in class evaluations are actually looked at and flagged - and in these cases teachers are followed up with by administration. Airing your complaints on the class evaluation is a totally confidential (safer) way for you to raise your concerns.
Find the human rights equity and advocacy office. The job of these offices are to hear your concerns and walk you through the process of the college to make an official complaint.
Parents and other adult advocates can’t officially intervene at college or CEGEP because students are considered legally adults. Nonetheless, it will be helpful to have an adult you trust with you when you make the complaints to be a witness and a support while you go through these difficult procedures. Although it’s true that you deserve respect no matter what, the truth of the situation is that you will often be treated better if you have an adult with you.
In every situation, make sure to document detailed accounts of the teacher’s behaviour and comments with the dates and time (if possible). If you know other students in the class share your concerns, ask them to document their experience. The more people and the more examples, the better.
And above all treat yourself well. Be gentle with yourself as you survive this difficult (and annoying) classroom situation. Even if you decide to do nothing while it is happening (which is also a totally valid choice), you can choose to complain or speak out after the semester is over or your time with that teacher is finished (so make sure to document everything you can!).