Hamilton course helps teenagers become father figures

Fatherhood is a high school course that teaches students how to be a dad.

Fatherhood class is being offered only at Sir Winston Churchill S.S.

Brody Gray is hesitant as he tries to cradle a baby girl. She's screaming at the top of her lungs.

Brody doesn't know what to do. He's not alone but he's in the right place. He's in fatherhood class. And it's full of teenage males.

The good news is the baby is a robot. Brady is a17-year-old student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Hamilton's east end. And he's learning the art of fatherhood with a robo-baby that mimics a real-life infant.

"Having a child changes your lifestyle," said teacher Taylor Elson.

Brody gives him a look. It says 'no-kidding'.

Fatherhood is a new course at Sir Winston Churchill S.S. being offered for only the second time this semester.

Like other high schools in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, Churchill offers a parenting class that attracted more female than male students, Elson said. There wasn't a class that specifically met the boys' needs, many of whom grew up in a home where the father was gone.

Plenty to learn

For some of Elson's students, fatherhood is just a class. For others, it is far more serious than that.

Brandon Ireland, 16, will be a dad in the new year. He's excited and wants to be good at it.  "I don't live with my parents," he said. "I don't get along with my dad."

There's plenty to learn. 'Fatherhood' is not all about being a dad. Elson tackles questions such as, what is masculinity? Or, what does it mean to be a man?

"We talked about gender roles and how media plays into the stereotypes," he said. "And how to be OK with being an involved dad."

Elson shows slides on the three main tasks of parenting — physical care, nurturing and guidance — and leads a discussion about how a dad fits in. His students, he said, are happy to have a place to discuss the father's role and share  experiences.

The course is gaining the attention of local educators. In October, it won the HWDSB's annual 'Profiling Excellence' award.

Sir Winston Churchill S.S. is a good school to pilot such a course. Elson, who grew up in a nearby neighbourhood, said tough issues like mental health and substance abuse are no strangers to these teenagers.

"The amount of turmoil they will take in their personal lives never ceases to amaze me," he said.

Most of the students either did not grow up with a father figure or are confused about a father's role in the family, Elson said.

His 19 students have a variety of reasons for enrolling in fatherhood. Students like Reily Widryk, 15, needs a social science credit, while Austin Keegan, 17, wants to be a social worker. Others are real-life examples of the tough situations Elson describes.

"I didn't want to be anything like my father or my brother's father," said Aaron Embreus, 18.

Aaron said he didn't meet his biological father until he was 15. His brother's father, who he said abused their mother, raised him.

Back to the lesson, Elson takes over holding the crying robo-baby from young Brody.  She needs a change and the change table is Elson's desk.

"You don't know what the baby needs," Elson said, with a shrieking robotic baby swung over his shoulder. "But with a diaper, there is no confusion."

The boys laugh at Elson's comment. There is a clear camaraderie between Elson and his class. The students know his daughter's favourite song (Justin Bieber's 'Baby') and her favourite words ("Kaboom!"). The students learn in this class that little Cosette has just learned to say 'banana.'

The robot baby is crying again. This time, Elson knows it needs to be burped. "Sometimes, you go to town," he said. "And sometimes you hold back." After a successful burping, Elson demonstrates the 'football' hold before wrapping up the lesson.

"There is no reason not to be a hands-on father," he said, enforcing one of the main messages to his students. The fatherhood course won't be offered in the winter semester this school year, but will resume next fall.

Elson is going to practise what he's teaching — he's taking time off to be a stay-at-home dad to his daughter.