Teaching equality start with equal treatment

“We were heading into our fourth day covering violence against women. Drained from teaching such heavy material and bored with the normal lecture-style presentation, I posed the option to my class-knowing full-well what choice they would make-that they could either hear another lecture to finish off the unit, or they could watch two short videos about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo where rape is being used as a weapon of warfare.”

We were heading into our fourth day covering violence against women. Drained from teaching such heavy material and bored with the normal lecture-style presentation, I posed the option to my class-knowing full-well what choice they would make-that they could either hear another lecture to finish off the unit, or they could watch two short videos about the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo where rape is being used as a weapon of warfare.

As suspected, they chose to watch the videos. Having screened them prior to class and knowing there was some graphic content, I warned them ahead of time and gave them the liberty to leave, close their eyes or plug their ears if they became too uncomfortable.

But, no one left. No one looked away or shielded their faces. No one covered their ears. Instead, a majority of my students stared, in shock and horror, their eyes and mouths agape. Some cried.

As I surveyed their faces, I was struck more by their nonverbal responses than what they were viewing. I felt like I had broken each of their hearts. I felt negligent.

I had given them an option knowing full well what they’d pick, perhaps subconsciously manipulating them. I wanted to make them see, hear and feel; to understand the reality and the horror, of other women’s lives and worlds outside of their own.

Maybe I needed to share my burden of awareness, my knowledge of the injustices and oppression on our nation and other nations’ women.

This was the point of teaching wasn’t it, to make them aware. And yet, I felt something was so deathly wrong with this whole picture. I felt I had done them some kind of disservice, rather than educate them or broaden their worldviews.

When the videos were over, I debriefed them. Through clenched jaws and fiery, teary eyes, they asked me things like, How can anyone rape a baby? or How is it that these soldiers can get away with this?

I had no answers; there were none. Unable to comfort them, I had to fight my own urge to cry. I felt I had destroyed some part of them, a part that believes in a just and peaceful world.

After class, I plunked down at my desk and asked myself, what kind of teacher was I, forcing my students to see the evil in the world and crushing their worldviews in the process? Tell them there are huge problems needing fixing, pushing them to feel anger and pain so that maybe they will be called to act.

Sitting there, reflecting, I realize I have done this all semester, harping on women’s inequality and oppression in all areas of their lives. I’ve painted this bleak picture, and though it is supported by facts, statistics, research, theories, real-life accounts and examples, it is a bleak, depressing picture nonetheless. I wonder if other teachers feel similarly.

And I wonder if I’ve balanced these failings and problems with what’s been done to change them? Have I refocused the lens after each pummeling, to approach women’s accomplishments, activism and our continuous gains toward equality?

Or have my students simply just gone home, feeling like their worlds have been completely erased and redrawn in a matter of weeks?

I am making them aware, asking them to be involved in their local, state and national communities. I am trying to empower them. But I have not meant to do it while stripping them of all comforts, all positive perspectives, ideas and/or images, if that is what I have done.

Teaching is about informing, educating, making people aware and building consciousness. But, what about teaching them how to cope and respond, helping them to persevere and to not lose hope? Is that not also my job? And have I done it?