Silence Sends a Message

Whenever we talk about safety in the classroom, the question always comes up: How much can or should an instructor do?

I think most people would agree that the instructor’s job is to establish a tone of respectful discussion and to encourage everyone to participate. Going a step further, I have been writing recently about how I work to make it safe for students to decide if, when and how much they will participate (Just Say Pass and We Wait for Naomi).

Safety is Relative

I know that safety is relative. As a woman and a lesbian, I know what it is to feel unsafe in situations where it is “normal” to feel safe. As a white, able-bodied person I know my privilege makes me safe where others are not safe. When I think about making my classroom a safer space for everyone, I think about relativity.

One year, on the second day of class, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, and with some small part of my mind. (You know how your mind is full of many small details on the first few days of classes.)

I had just asked people to get themselves into small groups for discussion, and I saw Pete crash across the room to get into the same small group as Penny, and push a chair into the circle so he was sitting beside her. I caught Penny’s eye; she looked trapped and unhappy as he turned to her and started talking.

It was her expression that made me take note of what was happening. She was young, small and pretty. Pete was over 50, not large, but authoritarian in his dealings with women and young people. He had been in my classes before, and I knew some of his attitudes about women. As I looked at them in their discussion group, I realized I had seen them in the hallway at break, her backed up against the wall and him hovering over her and talking.

I know there is a lot of flirtation that goes on in an ABE classroom, especially as people get to know each other at the beginning of term; people come on to one another, and often at least one romance blossoms to the point where it comes to my attention. What was happening between Pete and Penny was different.

I thought, I should talk to her after class to see how she’s doing. But really, I said to myself, what am I going to say to her? Am I reading too much into the situation? And is it any of my business?

I didn’t want to make a point of saying in front of the whole class that I wanted her to stay behind, so I said nothing, and she made a beeline for the door as soon as class was over, with Pete on her heels.

So I was a little relieved to let myself off the hook, and promised myself that I’d pay attention the next day in class, and talk to her then if it seemed necessary.

She didn’t come to class the next day. More relief on my part, tinged with wondering if I had been right, and Pete’s attentions were keeping her away.

The next day, again, she didn’t show up for class.

The Talk

Someone who misses two days of class the first week gets a phone call from me, for sure. So I phoned. She offered no real reason for missing class, but said she’d be back the next day.  I’d heard that before, so I took a deep breath and started.

Me: I’m going to ask you something that’s a little unusual. You may want to tell me it’s none of my business, and that would be okay too. I noticed in class the last time that Pete was very anxious to sit beside you. It seemed to me that you were not happy with him being there. Am I way off base here?

Penny: Oh, you’re right, yes. I didn’t know what to do. He asked me out on the first day of class. I said no. I’ve got my little girl to look after, and I’m trying to study hard and get my grade 12, and anyway, he’s way too old for me…. I told him I didn’t want to get involved with anybody, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Me: Well, I want you to feel comfortable in class, so you can study and get your grade 12. Do you think you can handle the situation, or do you want some help?

Penny: No, I don’t think I can handle him. I came home the first day and told my Mom about how creepy it was that he wouldn’t back off, even when I said I didn’t want to go out with him. I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but really….
Then the next day, I saw that you saw he was chasing me. When you didn’t do anything, I thought you thought it was alright. That’s really why I didn’t come back to class the next day.

Human Rights

The Human Rights Code at my College says that it is the duty of faculty to intervene when they see or hear any sexual harassment, racist, or homophobic incidents. They must not ignore behaviour that is contrary to the code. I understood the reason when I heard Penny say, I saw that you saw. When you didn’t do anything, I thought you thought it was alright.

6 thoughts on “Silence Sends a Message

  1. A fascinating post. I did my Master’s thesis on silence. Silence in a room where two people are angry with one another is very different from the silence in a room where two people are praying gently together. There can be as much meaning in the absence of words as there is in the words themselves. Good on you for finding the balance between intervening and not pushing. Both students are lucky to have you as a teacher.

  2. Hi Chip. Nice to see you here.
    What did I do then? I went to see what resources my College had to offer, and they were rich, I think. We had counsellors. She could have gone to see a counsellor for help with dealing with this and similar situations; she may have gone to an initial meeting, but I don’t think she carried on, at least she didn’t tell me if she did.
    Because it seemed to her, and to me, that there was possibly harassment involved, a counsellor saw him to hear his side of the story, to explain the difference between mutual flirtation/admiration/etc. and harassment, and to make it clear what kind of behaviour was unacceptable. He had to go to that meeting. Nothing formal was done, with regard to the human rights policy, but he struck up a good relationship with the counsellor and continued to see him weekly for a couple of months. I think they talked about how to find a girlfriend.
    The best part for me was that after the phone call to the student, and alerting the backup systems in the college (i.e., the principal and through her the counselling services) I had hardly anything to do. I was able to go back to teaching, with both of them in the class for a short while until she could move up to the next level, which we probably fudged a little to make it happen sooner. If we had had a bigger program, with more than one section of each level, we could have moved one of them into a different section immediately.
    I often found it more problematic to deal with issues between people who were close to each other before they came to the class–husbands and wives, siblings, parents and adult children, sworn enemies.
    Does your program have resources to back up the teachers, or do you end up dealing with things like this in addition to teaching?
    Kate Nonesuch

    • In harassment situations it is good to pay attention to who gets moved if there is room to have someone move. To be moved carries a stigma so generally it is better to move the harasser than the harasee. In employment situations the harassment often goes with the boss/worker relationship — the boss being the harasser. Interesting how that works…
      management often wants to move the worker because the boss is ‘more valuable’ but that ends up punishing the harassment victim and conveys the wrong message about speaking up.

      • Interesting point, barbara. In this case, the woman who was being harassed got moved up to the next higher level, so it was a promotion of sorts. She did have to change classes in mid-term, get used to a new teacher and new classmates, but she ended up completing two courses in the time she expected to complete one. If we had a lower level, I guess we could have moved him down. For sure, if the harassment continued, we could have suspended him, but his sessions with the counsellor resulted in him leaving her alone.
        What do you think? Am I grasping at straws here, trying to defend our actions?

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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