Gender is Unavoidable: Parents Just Need to Ask the Right Questions
Going from middle school to high school, for many students, feels like paragliding across the Grand Canyon for the first time without an instructor and you’ve chosen the windiest day of the year...at night. You just hang on tight, close your eyes and hope to land on the other side safely. Even when students are academically prepared and showing signs of readiness (and desire!) to make the leap, they report back that no matter the best intentions of schools to create a smoother, lighter transition, the ride is a rough one.
Having worked in both K-8 education and high schools, parents come to me regularly asking about THE transition. Many are anxious and, if they are lucky enough to have a choice, are weighing the best environments for their kids. One of the questions I am asked most often is, “will my child (son or daughter) be better off in single sex versus mixed gender environment?” This question is so loaded. Many parents are thinking and considering the following questions. Under what circumstances will my child best thrive as a learner? Where will there be the least amount of distractions? And, can I put my child into some type of adolescent safe house for the next four years? Parents think that their children will magically be guarded against sex, drugs, and rock and roll by being in a single sex environment.
Some are even going beyond the surface questions and doing research. They want to know what the experts have to say about single sex versus co-ed education. My own explorations into this research reveals a tangled, complicated mix of gender, politics, gender politics, religious values, school funding issues...etc. There are so many different agendas, that clear answers are not so clear and not so available.
What I do tell parents (and teachers and administrators) is that if you send your children to an all-girls or all-boys environment, the opposite sex is there and present, you just don’t see them. Gender and the social constructs which we create around gender are everywhere and pervasive. They do not just disappear because we have separated out girls from boys. Depending on the vision of leadership of the particular school, implicit thinking and biases which impact learning and student growth can even become more amplified in single sex schools.
Parents think that their children will magically be guarded against sex, drugs, and rock and roll by being in a single sex environment.
The major factor that indicates if schools are addressing gender issues in their environments is if they are addressing gender issues in their environments. And, this does not mean that student handbooks have policies to address sexual and general harassment (they should, no matter what). The answer to questions regarding gender should not be expressions of reaction disguised as decisive behavior, outlining how the last student harassment or bullying issue was dealt with. This is the Ostrich Syndrome where we stick our heads in the sand and pretend these issues do not exist until a full blown crisis presents itself. “These concerns and episodes may be happening in other people’s schools, but not ours.” This type of expression of culture through denial should be an immediate red flag.
The questions parents need to ask are actually simple:
What do you do, on an active basis, to create as safe a place as possible for students regarding gender issues?
Are your teachers trained to address gender learning issues in the classroom?
Does your curriculum, content and practices paint a broad, inclusive picture regarding gender?
Whether single sex or co-ed, schools should understand where they are and what they think regarding issues of gender. Optimally, they should have an approach that everyone in the school community is aware of and guides all types of processes in the school, not just when a crisis occurs. Parents should also be pressing schools to answer these questions. A dignified and respectful learning experience for all students relies upon it.