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The Ideal School


by Jos Verstegen in General , 09 December 2009

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 12 minuten


Peter Dankmeijer is specialized in the field of “homosexuality and the education system.” With the company Movisie in Utrecht and his own company Empowerment in Amsterdam he advises schools on their policies. A conversation about the exemplary school in which everybody will feel comfortable, “whether you’re gay or lesbian, straight, bi, trans or whatever.”

Schools for secondary education in Holland have about 750 pupils on average, statistically we’d be talking about a few dozen gays and lesbians per school. What would an ideal school look like?

Peter Dankmeijer: “When you walk in as a newcomer, there would in any case be a nice introduction week for pupils coming straight from primary schools. To get to know each other a little. The teachers are aware that most of their pupils will hit puberty within half a year, they could almost prepare the issues that will certainly arise during the latter half of the first year, on a sexual level. Relational and sexual issues will surface.

As a teacher you can ask questions like: how do you work together? How do boys and girls deal with each other? Making homework together, who works with whom? Would you want to make homework together with a gay fellow pupil. Do you feel very feminine or masculine, a macho perhaps? What are the pros and cons of that?

You can address something as simple as who waters the plants in class. You tell them a macho can also water plants. Taking care of good cooperation, that is an important thing. A fashionable word nowadays is classroom management. The idea is that good cooperation will improve safety.”
“My ideal image is that on such a school it wouldn’t be an issue whether you’re gay or lesbian, trans, etc. Sexual preference or identity is something you respect with one another, it’s something you can talk about with your friends.”

Homosexuality would be a fairly normal topic.
“Almost not a topic at all. It would be like a friendship: it’s there but you don’t have to discuss it all that often. You’re friends, or you’re not, you are aware of it without having to make it explicit. You’re gay or you’re not, people are aware of it and it’s not an issue.”


So how do things continue after the initial year?

“The attention for sexual and relational shaping education returns during several years in the curriculum, schools call this a continuing education trail. It’s also a condition from the Ministry of Education that in several subjects over several years attention will be spent on citizenship.

This means for example to learn what identity, respect, tolerance means; to learn what it means to take interest in someone who’s different from you. When people experience something they think is very unusual they initially have the fight or flee response. Must be something from long gone times.

When confronted with something in the wilderness, one didn’t have time to talk of think. This instinctive emotional response is still active inside us. In school we can teach pupils to deal with the unknown. We introduce them to other cultures, different sexual preferences, so that tolerance and respect will prevail instead of the instinctive reflex.”

It would be great if we can organize it like that in our ideal school, but isn’t it a shame pupils might have to face an entirely different climate at home?
“Ideally the parents cooperate as well of course, but indeed, even an ideal school can’t change the world instantly. In primary schools the parents have more to do with what’s going on, in secondary school much less so. Parents check whether the results are OK and that’s usually it, it’s not realistic to think this is going to change. Pupils prefer to keep their parents at bay in this stage of their lives. They are not comfortable with their parents to keep a close watch.”

Long-Term

Research shows school management is usually much more positive about the climate at school than pupils are.
“Yes. Inspection has visited a small number of schools. The management, teachers and pupils have been questioned on what they think of the state of gay emancipation in their school. The management usually thinks everything is fine because they are aware of their policies that seem to be working out fine in general, so why wouldn’t it be the same when it comes to a detail like this. They however, have a limited view of what happens on the work floor. Half of the teachers say they’re happy, but a majority of pupils say the climate is actually negative. So one of the conclusions was that the management, the teachers and pupils ought to talk more with each other.”

How would you organize that?
“Well, as advisors, we contact the management. We can offer them a method to improve the social conduct in school systematically. The management likes this approach as it can improve safety as well. We then make sure gay issues are included in the method, of course. We engage the care coordinator, the safety manager, a gay teacher and a confidentiality worker. Usually some incidents around homosexuality then quickly surface. A pupil once committed suicide, or somebody’s been sent away, somebody was remarkably timid his entire time at school.

When these parties come together they realize they didn’t talk about this enough, they are not aware of what’s going on with each other. The incidents have not been recorded because teachers don’t see that as their responsibility. If something is written down about it, they usually keep it to themselves because they don’t want the school to get a bad reputation. We advise schools also to record all discrimination related and social exclusion incidents for one year, and to talk about these things once a month in this core group and later with all teachers.

Later a text on non-discrimination can be added to the school regulations. Teachers play a central role when it comes to changing the way we approach certain things. They can make policies that there will be no name-calling, and they can stick to these rules so that there’s consistency. Every teacher ought to be able to use his own style when it comes to counter name-calling, with punishment or humor.”



“There are lots of other ways to make schools into good and safe places. Team building, like sports competitions, are very important to improve contacts amongst pupils. The COC can come for an information session or you can invite a theater group for a performance on homosexuality, or you can visit a gay-related exhibition. You can give pupils the assignment to organize a special theme day. And you have to pay attention to pupils themselves: when a pupil comes out of the closet, make sure they can go to a professional to talk about it. One-off activities or initiatives will not be enough. It’s important to follow a consistent line, to stick to a policy for the longer term: in this school we respect each other. That’s clear to pupils and then a pleasant school culture will get a chance.”

Just inviting the COC for one afternoon will not make a difference.
“Exactly. My advice would be: don’t rely on ad-hoc activities but design a track. There’s one nice, rather unusual example of a school with a lot of black pupils, in which a teacher said in September to announce the COC delegation: ‘The gays are coming!’ The class was in turmoil: ‘What are they supposed to do here?’ The teacher told them: ‘They’ll come to tell us how they have sex.’ The uproar in the classroom was even greater. All through the year the teacher kept repeating the announcement and every time she said rather extreme things like: ‘All gays have sex all day.’

So pupils started to protest: ‘That’s not true, gays are not like that. They will come to tell us about how they’re being discriminated against.’ They started to defend the gays and this took them by surprise. When the COC finally showed up in April, the pupils had already thought about the subject quite regularly. Their teacher’s attitude had changed their negative generalizing stand. They took it seriously and they had interested questions. Over an extended period they had been challenged to think about the issue and take a stand. They’ve developed in a gradual way. To achieve that you have to be a rather perceptive and courageous teacher too!”

Respect And Involvement

Being discriminated is something a lot of youngsters of immigrant descent will recognize. You could point out that gays are also being discriminated. You’d create understanding and perhaps even respect. At least, that’s the theory. Does it work like that?

“Yes, it does. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or to say it in a more modern way: ‘respect 2 give = 2 get.’ We’ve developed a lesson series in which we talk about that important subject: respect. A lot of pupils, especially those of immigrant descent, think they often don’t get the respect they deserve. Everyone has the right to show who they are, for example: Moroccan. But then there’s the question, what are you as well? You are also a soccer player, guitar player, attractive boy, etc.

Your identity consists of several elements and it’s very irritating when people only see or address just one aspect. When they just see the Moroccan boy and not the talented soccer player you are too. When pupils finally realize this and agree it’s not fair to base your opinion of someone on one aspect only, we introduce the theme of homosexuality.

You can make very clear that homosexuality too, is just one aspect of a human being. Every gay person is so much more than just a gay person. This way we promote tolerance and respect because pupils can connect their sympathy for fellow pupils easily to an aspect they like anyway. The sole demand of accepting gays, is much less productive.”

You once said in a lecture that pupils should be involved with school regulations from the first year of secondary education. Pupils can go for excursions to other schools where they’ve arranged safety issues well. When they’re involved in designing social conduct rules and policies, they will feel responsible. More so than when the rules are imposed from above. Is that important?



“Indeed, when you live with several people in the same house and one of them says: there you go, these are the rules, then and then you’ll have to clean and then you have to do the shopping. It remains to be seen whether you will feel the need to stick to them. But if you sat down together and worked out who was going to do what, you’ll feel involved and you will stick to the deal. More responsibility translates to more commitment.”
Is this being put to practice in schools?

“Here and there, but not in enough schools yet. It’s hard to organize. Pupil populations change all the time and school managers don’t have much experience with running schools in social aspects. They feel they have to exert a lot of control to keep the pupils under control. To a certain extend that might be necessary but one could get into the situation where the discrepancy between regulation and reality becomes so big pupils will revolt.”

“It’s a good idea to give pupils a say over what goes on in school. You see the difference immediately when you enter a school. When pupils don’t have responsibility a sort of street culture resides. Pupils are shouting at each other, they scuffle, handle each other’s bags and spit on the ground. There’s rubbish in the hallway and the walls are covered with graffiti. In other schools things look much more orderly and the pupil receiving you says politely that the teacher you came to see, is unfortunately still in a meeting, would you like to sit down and have a cappuccino?

The rules will not have been designed by pupils only but they will stick to the whole package. They are not indifferent to them, they are involved, the rules have become part of the culture of the school. At a Muslim college in Amsterdam pupils will lead prayer over the intercom, which is also a form of responsibility. There’s another school in Amsterdam, the IVKO, Individual Secondary and Artistic Education, where pupils have pitched a large meditation tent in the school’s courtyard with sounding bowls and candles to calm down. It’s a project of the pupils so they feel involved.”


Ideal Schools

Are there schools where you think the situation is more or less ideal for homosexuality?
“Unfortunately there’s not many to choose from. There are a few schools where it’s very possible to be openly gay, like the IVKO. The smaller schools in the higher segment are generally safer. It’s easier to come out in those surroundings.

At the level of VMBO (preparing for vocational college) those aiming at hospitality are often friendlier and safer, but not necessarily gay-friendlier. In big schools with lots and lots of pupils with management focused on production more than social climate and VMBO technical branches the situation is much worse. This doesn’t mean the schools wouldn’t want better climates.

The technical College Amsterdam is a VMBO school with pupils of almost exclusively immigrant descent.

Homosexuality is a very difficult subject amongst the pupils while the school management, the safety coordinator and a number of teachers are working very hard to improve the situation. They notice inappropriate behavior every day and want to do something about it.

At the IVKO everybody assumes right from the start already that everything is safe. There are five or six pupils openly gay and that’s quite a lot for such a small school. At such a school we sometimes have a lot of trouble convincing the management that the situation could actually still be improved considerably. There are undoubtedly still other pupils hiding their sexuality. We have to remain vigilant, even when the situation seems much better than average.”




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