What the principal missed: How truancy is the symptom of a toxic environment

by Aaron Hendry / 25 September, 2018
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More than 100 students walked out of a Hamilton high school yesterday in protest of their principal who said truants are more likely to go to prison, be raped, be unemployed, commit or be a victim of domestic violence, commit suicide, and have health and drug problems. The principal's attitude of hopelessness and condemnation does nothing to help our rangatahi, writes Aaron Hendry. 

“Yeah, well maybe you should just kill yourself!”

Liz shrunk back in her chair as her teacher gave her a smug smile and returned to his desk.

The teacher's words were a retort to a wisecrack Liz had just made. She knew she had been getting cheeky, she knew her teacher just wanted to shut her up, she also knew he’d succeeded.

She didn’t learn anything else that day. Just that school was not a safe place to be. The sniggers of her classmates only enforced the point.

It was the beginning of Liz’s road to truancy.

This event happened at the beginning of Liz’s school year. The previous year had been an extremely successful year for Liz academically. She had passed the year with flying colours, and it was expected that her success would continue.

But then it tanked.

She stopped engaging in the classroom, began missing classes, and, as you might imagine, her grades began to take a deep dive.

As a Youth Worker within the school, one of my roles was to support rangatahi who were beginning to disengage from education and journey alongside them as they tried to reconnect with some form of learning.

So it wasn't long before Liz was brought to my attention. Everyone had an opinion on what her “issue” was. Teachers, deans, guidance counsellors, they all knew what her problems were. She was lazy, rude, entitled, obnoxious – the list could go on forever.

Yet, after only a couple of minutes with Liz, I quickly realized that no one had asked her!

Liz’s family was going through a divorce, her sister’s boyfriend was over regularly, and they fought constantly. Liz was battling depression. She hadn’t named it yet, but as we talked I realised that she easily ticked all the boxes: low mood, suicidality, poor self-esteem, and difficulty thinking clearly and processing things.

And riding underneath it all, was this deep sense and belief that she was “too stupid” to succeed.

As we talked, I realised that the aforementioned incident with her teacher had profoundly affected her.

It was in fact, where her truancy had first begun. Her confidence had been stripped. Her belief in herself had been destroyed.

Liz was going through significant challenges in her life. And school, which should have been a safe, supportive, nurturing environment, had become just another toxic one.

There is a narrative that exists in our society that young people are self-absorbed, lazy and just don’t want to learn. This narrative was heard echoed in a speech given by principal Virginia Crawford from Fraser High School in Hamilton yesterday.

A speech that told students if they skipped school that they were, in her eyes, losers, without hope, who had squandered their shot at a future.

This narrative is not just blatantly wrong, it is also extremely dangerous.

It puts unnecessary pressure on our rangatahi, often leading to increased likelihood of mental illness and suicidality. On top of that, it acts as a distraction from the real reasons behind why our rangatahi are disengaging from the school system.

The reality is, that our young people are facing some complex challenges in their lives. And sometimes, as we’ve seen in Liz’s story, school is just not a safe or nurturing environment.

For some, Liz’s story might seem like an extreme case. You might be thinking, but how many young people really get bullied by their teachers? Aren’t most schools, safe supportive environments?

In my experience, it very much depends on what sort of young person you are.

If you fit in the box, if the current school system works for you, and you succeed fairly easily, then school may just be a great environment to learn in.

But, not everyone fits the mould. If you don’t.... more often than not, the system turns toxic.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had young people disclose to me that they have experienced bullying from their teachers.

There is a power structure that exists within our school system, a patriarchal value of dominance and respect that’s so entrenched within the system, that it’s often left unquestioned and undiscerned.

We see it on display each year, when we have another national debate about whether a young man should or shouldn’t be stood down for having long hair, or a piercing, or over some random and insignificant issue.

I’ve seen it firsthand when I’ve had to advocate for young people who are at risk of being stood down or even expelled. Not because they have gotten into a fight, or brought drugs onto the property, or any other manner of offences you might imagine a young person could commit against their school. No, simply because they had worn the wrong piece of clothing.

Our school system seems to be designed to make our young people conform and obey. And if they don’t, we punish them.

The way we view our rangatahi needs to change. We need to stop seeing them as “problems to be fixed”, and start seeing them as people bursting with hope and potential.

We need to recognise the complex challenges many of our rangatahi are facing, and find creative and empowering ways to support them to overcome these hurdles.

We need to examine what it is that leads rangatahi to disengage with the school system. And instead of blaming the young person when their school and their community fails them, we should be looking for ways to turn our schools into safe spaces, where our rangatahi can thrive.

I’m sure that Mrs Crawford’s heart was in the right place. But, her message was one of hopelessness and condemnation. That is not the message we should be sending our rangatahi. They don’t need yet another voice telling them they are not good enough.

What they need, is a message of hope.

You might be interested to know that in the months that followed, as Liz and I started working together, her education began to improve.

It wasn’t because of me. I did very little.

I just believed in her, listened to her, stood by her.

It is amazing what the power of having even one person in your corner can do.

Imagine if our schools focused on being that voice of truth and affirmation that our rangatahi so desperately need.

I wonder what that would do to change the levels of truancy in this country?

*Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker in Auckland, where he lives with his wife and newborn son. A theology graduate of Laidlaw College, he writes about the intersection of theology and social justice  at whenlambsaresilent.wordpress.com / facebook.com/whenlambsaresilent

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