Why is bitching about teens and teachers our national sport?

High school teacher, counsellor, and mother of three Louisa Woods considers the way we talk about teachers and teenagers in light of the latest ‘school scandal’ which was anything but.

In my time as an English teacher I’ve used I don’t know how many texts. Some have been classics, the ones you’d expect: Othello, To Kill a Mockingbird, the short stories of Patricia Grace, the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Others less so; I’m sure the feminist revisionist poetry unit I did with Year Twelve raised a few parental eyebrows, and The God of Small Things was a challenge for some of my Year Thirteens. But all were fit for purpose – handpicked after careful deliberation regarding content, style, appropriateness and relevance – and the ideas presented within were given context during classes. I still believe I could justify my choices if faced with questions or criticism.

Until this week, I never really stopped to think what would happen if someone grabbed one of these edgier textsHelen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing, for example – out of the context of my lessons or the assessment it was linked to, without considering the skills and attitudes the text allowed students to explore, and slapped it all over social media.

It didn’t cross my mind it wouldn’t matter that we’d done a unit about the objectification of women and the male gaze and practised critical analysis in class so when Helen, the subject of the poem above, justifies her work as a stripper it could be read as a critique of patriarchal society and the sexualisation and consumption of women’s bodies. All that would matter is that a surface reading of the poem, without the requisite background knowledge or a feminist lens for analysis, would paint a picture of a teacher giving out a poem promoting exotic dancing as a job of choice for the young women in her classroom.

And social media would roar.

And that’s pretty much what happened last week when Massey High School students were given access to a NZ Drug Foundation booklet Methhelp: How to Stay in Control.

It’s the list of ten ways of ‘Keeping Well’ (the only pages from the booklet I’ve seen online, funnily enough) that’s caused the most concern, leading to accusations of the school trivialising and even promoting drug use, and the teachers being called out as irresponsible. And, in a society where meth and its users are demonised, the list is almost shockingly pragmatic and non-judgemental with its advice to avoid use after 3pm if you want to sleep, and to be careful when using glass pipes.

It does – lacking context and presented with some snazzy headlines – seem an unusual, perhaps dangerous, thing to distribute to teens.

Until you look beyond the drama and examine the context, at which point it all starts to seem very reasonable.

A Year Thirteen health class, completing an assessment that requires them to ‘Analyse a New Zealand Health Issue’, were given access to a range of different resources examining the impact of methamphetamine, the factors influencing people to use it, and strategies currently in place to try to reduce the impact of the drug on individuals and communities. Methhelp was one. Its 25 pages are a self-help booklet targeted at people currently using meth, with the dual purposes of harm reduction, and supporting people to limit or stop their use of the drug.

What’s that now? A resource that provides an example of an evidence-based harm reduction intervention specifically in line with the government’s National Drug Policy? Why yes, it does sound like a suitable resource for senior students (who have by this point completed nearly five years of health education) to use to carry out research into methamphetamine use in our country.

So why did this school and its students hit the headlines?

Why are we so quick to freak out when young people are given information about the reality of drug use?

First of all, people love a good school scandal. Schools and teachers get dragged over the coals all the time: they’re either doing too much, or not enough; they’re putting too much pressure on our kids, or not preparing them for the demands of adult life; they’re treating our teens like children with all their rules and regulations, or they’re letting them get away with murder.

It’s tiring.

It’s actually pretty insulting.

I’m willing to bet the person who has given the health teacher the hardest time over this whole situation is the teacher themselves. Like me when I was teaching, they will have selected their texts with their class and the assessment in mind, wanting to give them resources that give them the best chance of success. They will have spent the last week second-guessing that selection, worrying all the comments they’ve read online are true, worrying they’ve sent their students off on a path of drug use and addiction. Teachers care about students. Truly.

We’re also not very good at seeing our young people as switched on individuals capable of critical thinking and sensible decision making. But that’s exactly what most of them are. Especially once they get to the final year at school.

Yes, teens sometimes make bad choices, and yes, adolescence is a time of risk-taking and exploration, but for most teens there is a limit, and according to statistics, less than 1% of teens have tried methamphetamine and of that group, the great majority have only tried it once.

They’ve had it drummed into them from early on that meth isn’t cool, and it’s a message that’s stuck.

Besides, substance abuse is usually the result of a complex interplay of risk factors (such as coming from a home where drugs are used, lacking connection with parents, school, or community, not taking part in hobbies or activities, or suffering with mental health), counteracted by protective factors (for example, having friends who don’t use, honest communication with parents, and a settled home environment). It is extremely unlikely that a checklist in a booklet, or anything else as simple, would be the deciding factor in whether someone begins using meth. To argue that is the case not only disparages our young people, but also belittles the experience of those in our society who are using the drug, reducing their pathway into problem drug use to a weakness or flaw on their part, or a single bad decision, when for the great majority of people this is far from the truth.

But that’s part of the problem here as well, of course. We don’t like to think about addicts as people with history and issues and trauma that may have led them to addiction. They’re ‘meth-heads’ and ‘wastes of space’, responsible for the most violent crime, causing a strain on our health system, and taking up valuable police time and tax dollars.

Oh wait, no, that’s booze.

Alcohol takes out those titles.

We spend more health dollars on alcohol related issues and injuries than we do on all other drug use combined and I’m willing to bet alcohol leads to more bystander or family injury and community damage than meth does. If we’re looking at teenagers, 9.2% of students who were identified in the Youth ’12 survey as fitting into the category of problematic substance use did so because of binge drinking behaviours.

And yet, it’s meth that gets the big headlines, meth people freak out over, meth people want to take a hard line on. We promote harm reduction in terms of alcohol use all the time. We tell people to drink water, to have a sober friend to look after them, to avoid mixing drinks, to eat, to ‘never drink and fry’. We expect our teens to be taught about ‘responsible drinking’ but not about ‘no drinking’. If that checklist had been about booze, I doubt there’d have been even a whisper of concern. But make it about meth, and it’s a different story.

There’s no denying meth is an ugly drug. It’s not something any of us want our young people to do. But demonising those who are using it, and seeing attempts at harm reduction as fuelling rather than dampening the fire are not helping anyone. For all we know, there was a student in that class who is using meth. Or someone with a friend who uses. Or a family member. For all we know, the information on that checklist is going to help one of those students save a life.

At the very least, perhaps reading Methhelp (and remember the students in the class could read the whole booklet, not just that checklist) will help those young people further understand the complexities of substance abuse and the challenges around reducing use or quitting. It may well lead them to more empathy for people who are struggling with addiction.

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