School Should Be the Driver of Change

Anita Woźniak exudes confidence: ‘Education is one of the key contributors to breaking the taboo around menstruation’, says the Principal of The Little Prince Community Schools Complex No. 2 with Bilingual Classes in Tarnobrzeg. ‘Communication is a powerful force. Instead of saying “one of those days” or “the difficult time of the month”, let’s simply say “menstruation” or “period”’, she suggested.

At an age where everything – including intimacy – is publicised, is menstruation still a taboo topic at school?

I think the word ‘menstruation’ still provokes a sense of embarrassment in some people and silly smirks in others. Yet others try to pretend there is no subject as menstruation. For the school, an important responsibility is to demystify it. At weekly class meetings, we arrange meetings with a gynaecologist for our female students. In order to do that, we use our own resources, or more specifically – some of the parents of our students are gynaecologists. It was not difficult at all to convince them such lessons were necessary.

How did the students respond to such meetings? 

Sometimes I think they respond better than us, the adults. Unlike the younger generation, we were raised believing some things are just not appropriate to talk about. We recently had a theatre rehearsal for a play to take place at the school. We were taking a break, sitting in the room, in a laid-back atmosphere. Someone asked who was going to the swimming pool on the following day (for a PE class). A girl, a seventh-grade student, responded loudly without the tiniest embarrassment that she could not because she was having her period. To be honest, I was stunned. Positively stunned, to avoid any doubt. The way she said it was just so ordinary, so natural. So obvious. Other students matched her style. None of the boys made any comments, none of the girls blushed. I must admit, however, that this is not very common. You asked me about the taboo. On one hand, it is being broken right now. But on the other, there are still quite a few girls who give in to shame. It will take a long time for them to be able to talk about their period like they talk about a toothache.

How do you get them accustomed to the topic?

Gradually. I was recently invited to a prom. In the club where the prom was held, next to soap and paper towels in the ladies’ restroom, there was a container with menstrual pads and tampons. I thought I need something like this in my school. And I followed through with it. Now any student on her period can use these products. It is also possible thanks to our school nurse who regularly replenishes supplies. We did more than just provide a box with products. The teacher who taught Introduction to Family Life at our school helped to implement an interesting initiative on the school premises. She invited people who brought a full range of feminine hygiene supplies, tampons, panty liners, menstrual pads. Of all sizes and applied in different ways. They showed how to use them. Which one is better for whom. They even presented how to handle a used product.

And what about PE excuses at your school? If a girl has her period, does she need to exercise?

Of course she doesn’t have to, and such an excuse is respected. However, my PE teachers tell me that since the subject became public, the number of excuses has gone down.

How is that possible?

Well, this works both ways. Since we are telling our female students that they don’t have to feel embarrassed, teachers, too, became more accommodating. If a girl experiences severe pain or bleeds heavily, she has full understanding from her teachers. However, we recently had a situation, reported by a teacher of another subject, that there was a female student who regularly reported being unprepared because of severe menstrual pain. Her reports would suggest that she had her period almost every week. We had to curtail the problem because discomfort may not become a universal excuse or be abused.

And when teachers menstruate, does the teaching community have understanding for their indisposition? 

Teaching is a feminised profession, with a clear predominance of women. Neither of us has to take time off during this time, we support each other, we have a system of colleague substitutions. I personally try to make sure that the topic is no longer associated with shame among my teaching staff. It is just physiology, after all.

So what do you do?

I always refer to myself as the ‘headmistress’. I believe that language can change the perception of reality. Communication is a powerful force. Teachers should talk like the seventh-grader I mentioned. Naturally, without looking for alternative terms. Instead of saying ‘ (one of) those days’ or ‘the difficult time of the month’, let’s simply say ‘menstruation or ‘period’. This is the first step that should be followed by body language. So as to avoid whispering. Then in the school community it will naturally sink in and will then permeate further, to homes (if they still avoid the topic at home), and wherever women can be found.