A norm-critical approach involving both staff and pupils has proved successful at the Järvenskolan Tallås school in the Swedish municipality of Katrineholm. The positive results include a calmer and less intimidating school environment as well as improved grades, in particular among boys.
Prior to the 2014–2015 school year, Järvenskolan Tallås had all the traits of a typical Swedish lower-secondary school. The environment in both hallways and classrooms was anything but peaceful, and many pupils felt uncomfortable as they had to endure verbal and physical attacks on an almost daily basis. To make matters worse, an anti-education culture had developed among boys, causing them to have poorer grades than girls.
Many teachers expressed attitudes such as ‘but guys and girls are different’, or ‘I don’t see gender; I only see individuals’. Nobody really reflected over how adults at the school interacted with boys and girls.
‘We saw that something had to be done and managed to get the school management on board’, say Maria Ekberg and Sanna Silow, both of whom are teachers at the school.
Started with the staff
Since the situation was primarily considered a pedagogical issue, the staff were approached first. Maria Ekberg was appointed lead teacher in gender-aware classroom management, with a task to initiate discussions about norms and gender equality in the teacher teams and at staff meetings.
‘We wanted the teachers to think about whether they treat boys and girls differently’
‘Our strategy was to facilitate short, intensive discussions on current issues and to use film clips and newspaper articles. We wanted the teachers to think about whether they treat boys and girls differently.’
Study trip to Frejaskolan
The staff and the school management team went on a study trip to the Frejaskolan school in the community of Gnesta about an hour away. Frejaskolan had already been implementing a norm-critical approach for several years to improve the school environment and the pupils’ performance. Key aspects of the efforts had included a zero-tolerance attitude to playful fighting between students.
‘We decided to copy that policy right away, along with the insight that it was going to be a long-term effort,’ says Sanna Silow.
Järvenskolan Tallås also copied the idea to integrate the compulsory sex and relationship education into all school subjects, and the school bought teaching material to support the teachers in this work.
Support from the municipality
The municipality of Katrineholm has worked actively with gender equality issues for several years and is presently in the process of LGBT certifying its various offices and services. There is a municipality-wide network in which teachers from preschool to upper-secondary level can share ideas and experiences related to the gender equality work.
‘Both the municipality and the school management are supporting us very well in the norm-critical work,’ says Maria Ekberg.
Adults intervene immediately
Once the school staff had been enrolled, it was time to involve the students in the work. According to Sanna Silow, the zero-tolerance for playful fighting met a lot of resistance in the beginning.
‘As soon as an adult hears or sees something unacceptable, we intervene. At first, many boys would say things like “come on, we’re just messing around”, so we had to spend a lot of time explaining why it is not okay even when you’re just “messing around”. Now it’s usually enough to just look at them; they know right away they have done something wrong.’
Student council involved in the work
Once a year, the school arranges a theme day for all pupils and staff. After a 1-hour introduction in the school auditorium, the teachers discuss various issues with their pupils in the classrooms. The school uses various norm-critical teaching material, such as The Macho Factory.
Every autumn, the pupils complete a survey where they can indicate where in the school environment they feel safe and unsafe. The results are then analysed together with the student council as part of the equal treatment work.
The surveys have resulted in several concrete measures. For example, the toilet door locks have been replaced so that the doors can now be properly closed. In addition, the student council presents material from The Macho Factory in the classrooms to spark discussions on values and norms.
Semester kick-offs focusing on norms
Each semester begins with a kick-off event where the pupils and teachers get to deal with issues related to norms and gender equality, for example in the form of a so-called privilege walk, which helps bring attention to how norms benefit some people and disfavour others.
Ibrahim Tarek is on the student council. He says that Sara Lund/Claes Schmidt, a transvestite who lectures on prejudices and values, once visited the school and had an impact on many pupils.
‘I think it’s great that the school brings attention to norms and talks about norm criticism, equal treatment and macho structures,’ he says.
Quieter, safer and better grades
The school is seeing significant results after only a few years of systematic work. Hallways and classrooms have become calmer, and in particular boys are performing better. The pupils say they feel safer and the teachers have become more aware of how their education is related to the gender equality work.
‘It is important that this work does not become an addition to the already heavy workload, but rather something that is integrated into the work that is already being done’
‘The ultimate objective is to create a safer school environment and more secure and comfortable pupils. It is important that this work does not become an addition to the already heavy workload, but rather something that is integrated into the work that is already being done,’ says Maria Ekberg.
‘It’s all about critically assessing everything we do,’ Sanna Silow adds. ‘When I teach Swedish literature, it matters what books I choose.’
Yasmin Khan is in eighth grade. She has noticed a big difference since the playful fighting was eliminated.
‘It’s calmer now. I think it was a good idea to ban it. Playful fighting can easily turn into real fights.’
And Ibrahim Tarek agrees.
‘What matters in the end is that everybody is treated well. You should be able to feel comfortable and safe in classrooms and hallways.’