Guest blog by Anna Zyla (original source: WomenEd Thailand)
I used to teach at a school that had 55 minute blocks. My prep periods were bundled together in the morning leaving me with an afternoon of four back-to-back classes. Any woman around 13-55 can likely spot the potential issue here. Forget about peeing. When was I supposed to change my tampon? I taught seventh grade so while many of the students knew about periods I definitely didn’t want them knowing anything about mine! The thought alone was horrifying. So I did what any healthy, sane, (menstruating) woman would do. I schemed up ways to sneak my tampon out of my purse, through the bustling classroom, down the packed hall and into the bathroom. I was so careful you would think I was carrying around a loaded gun rather than a tiny, plastic applicator for my vagina.
I found that life was easier during winter because I could tuck said object up my sweater sleeve or into the sides of my boots. Other times I slid it into the waistband of my pants or skirt and consequently learned how to walk like a penguin. I eventually got savvy enough to pre-plan. I would go to the bathroom before school and tuck a few tampons into the corner of that metallic “sanitation” box to use throughout the day. Now I could walk confidently down the hall without the threat of a tampon falling out of my skirt. Lift up my arm and wave wildly at students; nothing was bouncing out of these sleeves! This, really, was a brilliant plan … until it wasn’t. One day I went to retrieve my sneaky tampon and realized it was gone. Someone had stolen it.
I spent the next 3.6 hours in pure agony and anxiety that blood was leaking through my pants in front of my students and yet, there I stood teaching every lesson (differentiation included!) I choose to be miserable rather than grabbing my purse, yanking out a tampon, waving it in the air and saying, “ I’ll be right back, alright?”
I was a coward. But I wasn’t alone.
The next day I placed a basket overflowing with tampons and pads into the girl’s bathroom and announced it to all my classes. In order to be less weird about it, I began to research period culture. I soon became incredibly invested and passionate about the importance of destigmatizing periods in our schools, society and culture. (And I immediately invested in the menstrual cup which has a 12 hour turnover time and helps the environment!)
I now work at an international school in Thailand, but the taboo around periods still exists here — maybe even more severely — making my fight for its normalization that much more prevalent.
A few months ago one of my colleagues asked if I would co-teach a science lesson on menstruation with him. “I’m not going to pretend I know how to use a pad or what cramps feel like,” he said. So together we created and taught an interactive lesson delivering it to both the male and female students together. We dyed some water red and allowed them to “practice” using pads, tampons and menstrual cups. Together, we reiterated the idea that having your period means you’re healthy; you wouldn’t be embarrassed by the fact you worked out or ate an apple. Together, we talked about the different sanitary choices, where to purchase them and how to use them properly. Together, we answered questions and fostered conversations around periods. Not only was it a successful lesson, but I left feeling that we did something really monumental. First, we mutually decided not to separate the girls and boys while teaching this subject. Doing this can set the precedent that periods are something shameful or embarrassing. If we cannot openly talk to all the students about this topic then they’re likely to mirror that behavior outside of the classroom — which is, of course, exactly what we’re working to avoid.
Next, we chose to teach the lesson together — as a male and female — to model how open and casual we could discuss the topic together without any awkwardness. Throughout the lesson we noticed that whenever the boys had questions (and they had a lot!) some of the girls would even step up and answer for us. This created a beautiful, educational and collaborative environment. There was no immature giggling or strange silences. There was a palpable respect within the room among everyone there.
While I was truly fortunate to have done this with such a progressive and open-minded teacher, I know this isn’t the case everywhere. In the fight to destigmatize periods, it is vital that men become our allies. My male colleague keeps tampons and pads on a shelf in his room and tells his students to stop by if they ever need one. This isn’t unusual — many teachers do this — but it is a bit unusual coming from a male teacher. However, he sets a really high standard: offering support to girls regarding their periods should come from all teachers regardless of gender or age. We desperately need to change the narrative in our schools so that every teacher is talking normally and openly about menstruation just as we would about other issues. If we don’t it will always remain a societal taboo. Which, of course, is almost comical considering half of the female population bleeds every month.
We also have a rich opportunity as educators to weave the idea of menstruation into our lessons far beyond science and health classes. As I mentioned earlier, the more we can talk about this topic, the better, as is the case with many topics our society deems “uncomfortable.” It isn’t a surprise that there is a massive socioeconomic divide when it comes to accessing sanitation products. Personally, I think this would make for an excellent research topic. Rather than debating the very overused and dull, “should students have school uniforms?” might we have students debate the “luxury” tax put on sanitation products just a few years ago? In history, english or sociology teachers might discuss the social and religious taboos that women have gone through in the past. In Thailand, there are still signs posted outside temples warning women not to enter if they are menstruating … and this is in 2021! It is a relevant, rich and engaging topic that should absolutely be welcomed into all of our lessons.
It is essential that we normalize the conversation around periods so our girls can feel more comfortable in an already uncomfortable, strange time in their lives and boys can be given an opportunity to become supportive and educated allies. You really cannot go wrong by trying to unify the human race — especially in our world today.
Anna Zyla has worked as an English teacher in Costa Rica, the United States and Thailand. She is incredibly passionate about education and is always looking for new ways to incorporate modern practices into her classroom. She is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English as well as the Wisconsin State Reading Association.
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