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Gender and Implicit Bias: Three Steps to Support New Teachers

One of the most significant challenges for administrators in supporting new teachers is to help them unpack their previous notions of what school should be so that they can serve as many students as possible.

Having hired hundreds of teachers as an administrator, one of my most important questions I ask candidates is: “Tell me about your own experiences in school”. The purpose of the question is not prurient; it is meant to see if future teachers are able to create a coherent understanding of what worked for them in their education and what did not.

The reason this is so important is that teachers can bring important and inspirational energy into their classrooms based on their previous experiences. They can also bring a great deal of misconceptions and biases that need recalibration and adjustment through professional development. One example of this is when I hire new teachers who unabashedly thrived in school. School was the place they shined, they felt seen, supported and encouraged toward success.

The piece of information that can be missing from these teachers’ memories is that they were often a minority among their peers. These teachers, and often many of their friends, were really just a small percentage of the total school population. Instead, most students feel rather neutral about their education or, for many, even the act of getting out of bed in the morning to go to school causes anxiety and psychological dread.

This disconnect between a teacher’s own memories and the experiences of their students can create unnecessary conflict and feelings of failure for both the new teacher and their students. A primary job of administrators and mentor teachers is to make real the diversity of student experiences in a class. As Sociologist Barrie Thorne states so eloquently, it is “to render the familiar strange”, allowing teachers to tackle student issues, not with frustration and resentment due to dissonance of experience, rather with curiosity and love.

One of the core areas where many teachers, even those with years and years of experience, struggle to reshape their lenses is the diversity of gendered attitudes in a classroom. Students, as early as two or three, are in a constant state of gender experimentation. They try on different versions of gender at different stages of development and, under the best of circumstances, teachers and adults in their lives give them room and space to play with identity.

A primary job of administrators and mentor teachers is to make real the diversity of student experiences in a class.

So, what are some of the simple ways that teachers can allow students to see that traditional notions of gender are not an impediment to their learning or social development? Here are a few areas that teachers need to be aware of every day.

  1. Specifically for early childhood and elementary teachers where all subjects are taught in a single classroom, do the walls of your classroom accurately represent the subjects that you teach? Would you say that there is a proper balance? Close to 85-90% of early childhood to 5th grade teachers are women. They tend to skew toward language arts and the arts in their interests. Are math and science prominent? Are they creatively represented on your walls? If this imbalance is noticeable and persistent, students are receiving powerful messages about what subjects students should identify with gender-wise.

  2. When answering questions that they struggle with, girls are more trained to answer “I don’t know,” and boys answer, “I don’t care.” There are different versions of these answers but they amount to the same gendered conclusions. With girls, it is a desire to disappear from view, from deep insecurities about how people will judge them. With boys, we teach them to be dismissive to maintain outer veneers of strength. Both responses need teachers to apply a critical lens to open students up, making them feel safe, and that they can be vulnerable in learning spaces. Girls need back, “Well, what do you know about what I asked?” Get them to feel comfortable with expressing partial knowledge that can move the learning along. With boys, we need to address meaning. “Why do you think we’re learning this?” “Is there something you do see here that is important to learn?” Throw away lines which merely reinforce very narrow and debilitating definitions of masculinity need to be challenged. They inhibit growth and create a social contract which allows boys to abstain from real responsibility and engagement with their learning.

  3. And, finally, if we can all agree that obedience is not an educational value or standard to be met, then we cannot tolerate it with girls as an escape from engagement, and our job is not to tame the “savage beast” with boys. Educators need females to speak up and we need to not overly discipline boys who act out. Boys get six times the attention (both positive and negative) that girls receive. Boys need to know, with love and attention, when they are taking up too much time and space, and girls need to be regularly encouraged to take their rightful and expected place in the class, every day.

Educators have powerful tendencies from their own memories and experiences as students, often based on gendered expectations. Our goal, particularly with new teachers, is to consciously pull those apart and reconstruct the lens by which they see students. Every student needs to be observed and understood on their own terms with both curiosity and interest.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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