By Associate Investigator Melissa Raine
As a young person in Australia right now, who listens to you, and how?
In recognition of National Youth Week, I asked these questions of Shania, a Year 12 student in Warrnambool, and Spencer, a Year 10 student from Melbourne’s inner west. Both are members of the Victorian Student Representative Council; it is, therefore, not surprising that their relationships with teachers were central to their responses.
Shania emphasised how much preparation she undertakes even before speaking when she wants educators to be receptive to her ideas: “[some] teachers and principals […] are willing to listen to me when I make the appropriate and respectful acknowledgements in talking to them. If I speak to them in a leadership role in an appropriate manner, I will get the same amount of respect back. […] I feel like we [students] have to make a conscious effort to go to these higher roles [i.e., the leadership roles of VicSRC members] to talk to them, to get them to listen to us.” In order to be heard, Shania carefully, even studiously, shapes her voice to fit with adult expectations. She also thinks carefully about who she will approach on specific issues: “you have to go to the appropriate person; otherwise, if we go to the wrong person, they’re not going to listen to us, they’re not going to have any interest in what we want to talk about. […] We have to put in the research to know what we want to say, who we want to talk to.” She attributes this to “some adults feel[ing] a bit superior.”
Spencer elaborates on this unequal power dynamic, which he describes as ‘authoritarian’:
“there are a lot of people who will put up walls and not listen just because somebody is a student, and I think that is a big problem we have with education at the moment.” He vividly describes the alienation that arises from this perception of being cut off from the support of and connection to their teachers:
“Often young people, after having that authoritarian approach from teachers, will see teachers as something more than equal to themselves or even worse, themselves as less than equal to teachers and older people, which creates a situation where they feel they are not good enough and they are not a person in the way that older people are.”
He reaches a disturbingly incisive conclusion:
“It sort of cuts it away at the knees that a young person can’t do as much and that they can’t be as much until they’re older, and that the whole point of high school is to just build you up to be older whereas there is so much that you can do now and today rather than waiting till tomorrow.”
Spencer’s belief that high-school-aged students are not understood or valued for their current selves complements Shania’s careful crafting of her voice to embody adult values of leadership. Perhaps what she describes as ‘appropriate’ in her mode of addressing educators is construed by them as evidence of her ‘being older’ already, as Spencer puts it. Surely there is nothing wrong in valuing signs of maturity in young people, unless it is at the expense of other, real and urgent expressions of self-experience; or, unless this privileging of the emerging future adult closes down vitally important opportunities for communication about current and compelling issues for the young person.
Both students recognise the value of caring, respectful guidance from teachers, the adults with whom they spend their waking hours; both, however, indicated that it was often a struggle to achieve this kind of communication, and that there was a disparity between their experiences in their leadership roles and as individuals within their schools. Shania felt that the question of who students could talk to needs “more clarity”; as a bare minimum, she hopes “that each student would have at least one teacher that they could trust and feel respected by that they could go to with anything.” For Spencer, who was emphatic about increasing recognition amongst teachers of the impact of mental health issues on students, this would ideally be the teacher who “find[s] a space where you can both sit down as equals” and be “just two people talking about what they need to talk about.”
It seems that so often in young adult fiction, older people are represented as untrustworthy or in conflict with the younger characters, as if their needs exist in opposition. By contrast, I was struck by the value that Shania and Spencer placed upon the role of the teacher who truly listens, and the anxiety that accompanied uncertain access to these safe connections. If those fictional oppositions speak to any reality, it might be to a lack of adult awareness of how empowering their genuine presence, careful listening and honest appreciation can be to young people.
Shania and Spencer’s concern for respect echoes some of the key issues that will be considered at the forthcoming Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia symposium. At this event, we will consider how respect informs the act of listening, how it interacts with the emotions of storytellers and listeners, and the shape of these interactions in our own historical moment. Although the conference focuses on children, the voices and experiences of young people will also contribute to the exploration of what it means to have, or not to have, a voice, and the complex processes involved in making sense of, and communicating, experience during these early phases of life.
The call for papers for the symposium closes on 15 April 2016: please go to http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/events/childrens-voices-in-contemporary-australia/ for more information.
Melissa Raine received her PhD from The University of Melbourne 2003. Her thesis was concerned with writing on food in a range of fifteenth-century Middle English texts selected to represent the diverse and overlapping domains of social standing, concern with health, religious observation, and physical pleasure, all of which were significant in shaping medieval thought about the significance of eating. Her interest in the relationship between corporeality, textuality and theories of self, as well as her interdisciplinary approach, continue into her current project, “Affect and The Child’s Voice in Middle English Narrative.” She tweets @meraine65.