Kristin Reimer

The school just didn’t like the way I behaved

Caleb had trouble sitting still and was first suspended from his school in grade 4. From then on he was “suspended every week from that school and it just kept going from there.”

Michael recalled when he was placed in “what was called the naughty class”.

“They just grabbed all the troublemakers in school and then put them in one class. We had a different recess time and lunchtime to everyone else. So, we couldn’t actually associate with all the actual good kids. Yeah, so it was just a bunch of naughty kids, you know?”

Amber remembered that, “If I asked for help in class, they’d explain it but they didn’t really care. I’d put my hand up and ask for help and they just kind of like pointed at the board and explained again what was on the board.” Eventually the school counsellor told her that “mainstream school was not good for her”.

Microaggressions are social interactions that transmit messages of privilege and oppression in everyday spaces. They are experienced as brief and commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental slights and insults.Those who commit microaggressions are often unaware that their communications and actions are received as hostile and derogatory by those from marginalised groups. Three forms of microaggressions have been identified: 1) microassault – a hurtful verbal or non-verbal attack, for example name-calling, 2) microinsult – demeaning communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity, and 3) microinvalidation – communications and actions that exclude or negate the experiences and feelings of others.  

Mainstream schools are places where students are expected to comply with conventional educational practices, policies and relationships. When students do not easily fit educational norms, they can encounter microaggressions from teachers, school leaders and peers – being put in the ‘naughty’ class or having requests for help in class ignored. These send daily messages to students that they do not belong in this school. The impact of these microaggressions include limiting students’ ability to learn and creating feelings of isolation and invisibility.  

In a new study we outline the microaggressions imposed on a group of students who simply do not fit into mainstream schools, students who are often identified as exhibiting challenging behaviours. These behaviours stem from an array of social, economic, health, cultural and trauma-induced roots, and indicate complex needs. These students are, even from a young age treated as disposable and are often made to feel like they are responsible for their inability to comply with expectations., They endure microaggressions at school that devalue and demoralize them and, eventually – by force or choice or both – they leave mainstream settings and turn to alternative and/or flexible learning options. 

There are a range of alternative options.  Flexible and Inclusive Learning programs cater for tens of thousands of young people across the country. As the name suggests, these programs come in many formats and share an interest in providing for students in ways that meet their individual needs for re-engagement with learning.

We explored student experiences of two different Australian Flexible and Inclusive Learning programs. In these settings we found that the opposite occurs: educators use micro-resistance to insist all students are worthy, valued, and human.

Case One: Save the Children’s Out Teach Mobile Education program

Out Teach is an individualised educational initiative aimed at young people living in Tasmania, Australia, who have been involved with the criminal justice system. The classes are mobile, taking place in the back of a van, with the frequency of classes depending upon the needs of the young person. 20 young people were engaged in the program at the time of the research.

Case Two: Aspire College*

Co-located within a community centre that provides a range of vocational education and community services, Aspire College caters for up to 60 young people in outer Melbourne. Students participate in individualised and flexible programs that cater for their learning and wellbeing needs and are based on the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL). 

Student experiences of mainstream schooling 

Young people who participated in our research offered insights into how their interactions with mainstream schooling had damaged them. They explained that their diverse needs were not supported in busy, inflexible, mainstream classrooms. Caleb, a student in the Out Teach program, shared an example that might seem inconsequential but demonstrates the ‘micro’ level of marginalisation,

“They’d want me to sit there and do what I had to do… I always play with pens…I’m always doing something with my hands to keep me occupied and the school just didn’t like it” 

This is an important detail that Caleb recalls from his mainstream school experiences. To educators, asking a student to stop fidgeting would likely be inconsequential, but for Caleb, it contributed to him feeling out of place in the classroom, like he didn’t, or couldn’t, fit in like other students could. This led to regular suspensions and he eventually left his mainstream school.

Our participants also explained how they often felt less important than the rules that were in place. Complex organisations, such as large secondary schools, traditionally have many rules, both those that are explicit, and those that are hidden as social norms and expectations.. 

One example is uniform requirements. Some of our participants related that the requirement to be wearing, for example, the right socks, was made to seem more important than their own personal, often challenging, circumstances.

These examples illustrate how these students endured subtle but invasive microaggressions and microinvalidations that were couched within daily practices. These not only marginalised the students but also caused them to internalise responsibility for their inability to conform. 

Student experiences of alternative education 

In sharp contrast, in the alternative education settings, students felt there was uncomplicated acceptance. Sofia explained that you could talk with the teacher “and not have to worry that you were being judged by him or anything; you don’t have to talk to him in a certain way.” Students described feeling relaxed, comfortable and encouraged in their classrooms. The smaller classes, flexibility, and focus on strong relationships were important as students reconnected with learning that was meaningful.

Different from students’ portrayal of learning in mainstream schools, learning in the alternative setting was positioned as accessible. The students could make choices and tailor experiences to their needs.

And, importantly, learning was seen to be fun. Zali reflected that “We all just get along and have a laugh or whatever. I think that the attitude of everyone around here contributes to the success of it.” The joy of learning and joy in being a learner was often new for these young people.

Micro-resistance in alternative education 

Our study found that in these two cases, the invalidation, marginalisation and disenfranchisement that students had experienced in mainstream schooling were countered by the affirming micro-level, everyday practices in the alternative settings. The practices of educators and the arrangements in these settings re-humanised students. Small, regular acts countered the prior negative associations with schools. Such messages re-built the worth and value of the young people and powerfully contributed to their re-engagement with learning. Although we are confident that such humanising acts occur regularly in mainstream settings, the difference in these alternative settings is that micro-affirmations are intentional, prioritised and consistent. In this way, these practices constitute micro-resistance that works to question the accepted practices  which in mainstream contexts suggest that rules are valued above relationships and that performance is valued over compassion.  

Lessons for mainstream 

By listening to the experiences of these students, the pervasive nature of microaggression in busy, often impersonal, classrooms become more visible. We saw that he insidious institutional and interpersonal microaggressions lead to internalised microaggressions, where students started to believe that their own learning and social needs did not matter.

The small acts that young people identified as occurring in the alternative settings provided a counter-message: you are worthy. The small acts students flagged are noteworthy because in other environments, they would likely go unnoticed: the Out Teach teacher was always on time; the teachers at Aspire ate lunch with their students and played footy during breaks; the students were viewed and treated “like normal people”.

To those educators in mainstream schools who are concerned about the long-term effects of microaggressions on students such as those in our studies: keep on doing the ‘small things’. Every small act that convinces a student they are worthy reduces the level of dehumanisation that they experience. Be on time. Keep your promises. Build relationships with students by asking genuine questions. Check in to see if students are truly understanding. Introduce material through student interests. Connect learning to life. Provide space for choice and voice. See students as multi-dimensional humans.

As much as you can, in all educational practices, seek to facilitate students’ – and your own – full embodiment of being human.

*Aspire College is a pseudonym used to preserve anonymity.

This piece is drawn from a recently released chapter: Reimer, K., & Longmuir, F. (2021). Humanising students as a micro-resistance practice in Australian alternative education settings. In J. K. Corkett, C. L. Cho, & A. Steele (Eds.), Global Perspectives on Microaggressions in Schools: Understanding and combating covert violence. Routledge. 

Fiona Longmuir lectures in Educational Leadership at Monash University and has over 20 years’ experience as a researcher and practising school leader. Her research interests include intersections between educational leadership and educational change with a particular focus on student voice and agency. She is working on projects investigating school leadership for social cohesion; leadership for unprecedented times; and student voice and agency in alternative educational settings. Find her on Twitter @LongmuirFiona and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/fionalongmuir/

Kristin E. Reimer lectures in education at Monash University and works to advance the idea of education as a humanising practice. Her main focus is Restorative Justice Education (RJE), where educators build strong relationships in schools and rigorous, healthy learning environments. Kristin’s research and practice reinforces education as a connective practice: alternative education for justice-involved youth; access to higher education for non-traditional students; experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking university students; and global citizenship education. She’s on Twitter: @ReimerKristin