• Educating Gender

“Do You Think This Is Okay?”: Performing Gender and Disciplining Students

Shakespeare makes many references to life as a type of play. The author imagines that we are all really on a stage performing our roles given to us by some arbitrary universe or some wickedly humorous and sometimes cruel God. Our roles, which we perform in the “globe in our heads” as Hamlet states, Shakespeare believes are largely constructs. We battle against these roles: we have this powerful desire to say our own lines, to use our own words to express our own true thoughts and desires.

What if gender were similar? What if the language that we use and choose is somehow “chosen” for us? And, language itself maintains preconditioned assumptions about gender stereotypes, limiting our ability to think for ourselves and be true to what we really believe? What we ultimately end up doing, more than anything else, is performing gender.

Certainly much of the language of gender and the way we perform it comes from many places. For children: the home, community, media representations...etc. And, yes, schools certainly play a significant role. Masculine language and strategies include, “interruption; topic control; using direct, unmitigated orders and criticism; avoidance of personal topics and self disclosure; and unsupportive conversational behavior. Women are stereotyped to be: indirect (use hedges, tag questions); collaborative; offer supportive feedback; be polite; and unassertive.”*(See Source Below)

What we ultimately end up doing, more than anything else, is performing gender.

In schools, the very idea of discipline has all sorts of implicit and explicit connections to the masculine. The very idea, I would argue, that we are “disciplining” anyone in schools as a means to support children’s social and emotional growth comes from a Victorian notion of school norms: students will develop self-discipline when they are properly disciplined. Men are often, whether in administrative positions or as teachers, the go-to people when serious and negative student behaviors arise. As I have written about in another post, The Call to Discipline: The Double Bind of Men in Early Education, the few men who go into early education are often assigned students who are seen as needing “strong disciplinarians” in the classroom and their lives. Many men who went into education resent the role and did not choose early education as a career in order to be the “heavy” in the classroom.

What becomes an even more compelling case for the masculine relationship to school discipline is that women also assume a more masculine identity type through their language use when attempting to create order in their classrooms. In a study conducted in the United Kingdom and Germany, which measured teacher’s language choices, the female teachers’ need for greater levels of control over their classrooms made them much more inclined to use male verbal and affective strategies, obviously imagining that these would be more effective.

 Many men who went into education resent the role and did not choose early education as a career in order to be the “heavy” in the classroom.

Cause and effect comments, such as “I will only continue until everyone is quiet,” attempt to exert maximal control without generating much student understanding as to the issues regarding a noisy classroom. Rhetorical questions, such as “Did I ask you to get out of your seat?” or “is it time yet to pack up your backpack?” are, again, not meant to elicit understanding but to assert rules with potential ramifications and which also often cause shame and embarrassment. The study also found that the more a teacher struggled with an orderly classroom, the more likely they were to turn to this form of masculinized verbal cues in order to regain a positive classroom decorum, regardless of the teacher’s gender. I have met teachers who never have to use this type of language to keep learning moving along; I have also observed teachers who only know how to use this language as they attempt to discipline a child.

What does this tell us? One lesson we all already know: managing a classroom of children is hard -- it can feel like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill day after day. Another insight is that gender identity is not necessarily a good benchmark of what a child may need, whether they are quiet, shy, rambunctious or out of control. We further see that, “we must reinterpret effective language use as reflecting professional identity rather than gender identity. (Italics added) Recruiting should instead stress the competencies all teachers share (i.e. instructional skills) and not simply follow role model arguments (e.g. tougher discipline).”*

Rhetorical questions, such as “Did I ask you to get out of your seat?” or “is it time yet to pack up your backpack?” are, again, not meant to elicit understanding but to assert rules with potential ramifications and which also often cause shame and embarrassment.

The awareness of the language which teachers use is obviously critical for teachers to see these patterns and make adjustments. However it is also critical that school administrators are clear about the ways in which they want classrooms to look and feel over the course of a day or the entire year. While there may be moments that the masculinized versions of language, and the performance it entails, would be critical in given situations with students, I would hope that schools would want students to mostly feel that the classroom is a place of acceptance, joy, and love. "Discipline" may be the wrong word and definitely the wrong outcome.


*McDowell, J. & Klattenberg, R. 2019. “Does Gender Matter? A cross-national investigation of primary class-room discipline”. Gender and Education 31 (8) 948-966

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