Rosie in the Classroom: A 1950's History Teacher's Gift to Young Women Today

Action Tank blog post header.png

The Education Equity Coalition, under the auspices of VCOSS, has recently launched the Stronger Schools campaign. This coalition comprises a range of social service, youth, and education agencies, and has collaborated to create an action plan for inclusive education. The eight components that make up the platform are designed to address holistic, comprehensive support that will support all children and young people to stay engaged in education.

For girls and young women, there are often unique challenges to school engagement. While they tend to overall be more engaged and receive better grades than boys and young men, research indicates that their wellbeing is plummeting – including reductions in physical, emotional and mental health outcomes. Recent research into supporting the ‘middle years’ finds that key components to supporting girls and young women in this age group is to increase their agency, and to treat them with respect. This includes providing accessible and reliable information on a range of tricky topics, some of which (such as sexting) were not issues for previous generations.

Today’s blog, written by Maddy Crehan (@Maddy_Crehan) at the Victorian Women’s Trust (@VicWomensTrust), highlights an innovative program that seeks to address this challenging terrain by providing teachers with lesson plans for tackling such issues as healthy relationships, creating and sustaining positive friendships, looking after mental health, and ethical consumerism. Known as Rosie in the Classroom (@RosieRespect), this educational resource kit supports best practice in the classroom, stemming from a foundation of equality and empowerment.

The legacy of a dedicated teacher

When I look back at my high school years and think about what made an impression on me, I don’t think about the books I studied, or the maths problems I learnt to solve; I think about the teachers who allowed us to explore big ideas like social justice and inequality. I think about the mentors who inspired us to study what we were really passionate about and gave us the confidence to pursue our dream careers. And I also think about all the things I wish I’d learnt more about; mental health, relationships, consent, women’s rights.

Educators have enormous power in shaping well-rounded and compassionate young adults. Someone who understands this more than anyone is Judith Walker; retired educator, dedicated feminist, and generous supporter of the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls.

Some years ago, Judith came to the Trust with a touching story about her mentor and lifelong friend, Elsie Robinson. Elsie taught Judith English & History from 1957-59 at high school, and she was both down to earth and deeply intellectual. Elsie remained a great influence on Judith throughout her life, as the pair shared a passion for justice, independence and equality.

Elsie passed away over a decade ago, leaving a modest inheritance to Judith. Judith sat with this small sum for some time, letting it grow and appreciate as she reflected on the best use of these funds, wanting to commemorate Elsie’s values as an educator and honour her memory.

When Judith first approached the Trust, she spoke fondly of Rosie, our digital platform for young women and girls, saying that “a project such as Rosie is so important, [as it] reaches out to young women of any level, showing them how to live in the ordinary, everyday, real world - giving them a meaningful understanding of [the] need to be independent and responsible for oneself.” We discussed how we could take this philosophy a step further by assisting teachers to promote respect and equality within the classroom. This meeting led Judith to dedicate Elsie’s bequest to the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls, in support of a digital educational resource for teachers. And so, Rosie in the Classroom was born.

Girls and young women benefit from school-based programs, like Rosie in the Classroom, that provide guidance for navigating a range of complex issues.  Photo credit Breeana Dunbar . 

Girls and young women benefit from school-based programs, like Rosie in the Classroom, that provide guidance for navigating a range of complex issues. Photo credit Breeana Dunbar

Rosie offers guidance for the real world

I’ve been working on Rosie for nearly three years now, and in that time what I’ve noticed more and more is that teenage girls are passionate about engaging with the world around them, and eager to change the status quo. However, juggling puberty, school, work, mental wellbeing, relationships, not to mention rampant inequality on top of that, can make being a teenager pretty overwhelming at times. That’s why it’s so important that young people have strong support networks and guidance to ensure they can grow into the resilient change-makers we know they can be. This is where Rosie in the Classroom steps in.

It has been incredibly inspiring working with young people over the years and seeing them engage with such important social issues. Rosie goes a long way to inform young people of their rights and provide a platform for connection but it is also clear that social issues like safety in relationships, mental health and community need more unpacking in a classroom setting, with guidance from teachers.

As any good teacher knows, education is about much more than learning skills in Maths and English. It’s about personal and communal growth, development and understanding. People start to shape their beliefs and connection with the wider world during their teenage years, which is why it is vital that they have the right tools to do so. In order to grow into empowered, confident and resilient young adults, teenagers need be supported to gain a full understanding of the importance of looking after their mental health, skills to maintaining healthy relationships and friendships, while finding ways they can positively contribute to their community.

That’s why we have taken Rosie that step further and developed Rosie in the Classroom. Made specifically for secondary educators, these educational modules have been written by Briony O’Keeffe, lead teacher at Fitzroy High School and creator of the Fitzroy Feminist Collective. Based on our original Rosie videos, the lessons cover topics such as friendship, healthy relationships, sexting, community activism, mental wellbeing, and more. Anecdotally, we already know that educators regularly use the Rosie website as a resource with their students. Rosie in the Classroom is about making that link explicit and includes lesson plans, activities, as well as a guide for locating these lessons within the Australian curriculum.

Rosie in the Classroom will honour the legacy of both Elsie and Judith as gifted educators, continuing their work in inspiring new generations of students to become resilient, strong and courageous young people.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.