Mentor Teachers and Classroom Environments: Exploring implicit bias and gender norms
Updated: Aug 28
One of my professional roles is as the director of The Mentor Teacher Training Program at American Jewish University’s graduate education program in Los Angeles. I could never have imagined a more proof of concept period for the program than the past two years during the pandemic. In their final reflections with their mentees, mentor teachers reported the high level of professional and emotional support they were able to provide their colleagues and how it allowed their mentees to get through the earth shattering difficulties of trying to teach and support students during COVID.
Mentoring and mentoring programs, where seasoned educators support their new and not so new colleagues, is a must. The benefits are numerous, from expanding professional support which administrators often do not have the time to provide, to developing a culture of collaboration and open communication among colleagues. Great mentor programs empower veteran teachers to find new pathways to leadership that fit their skill sets and help everyone feel more vested in their school communities.
I am also an educational consultant where one of my areas for supporting schools is through examining gender related issues on campus with teachers, administrators, students, and parents to create gender aware and gender fair environments, expanding the possibility for all students to receive an excellent education. Implicit bias surrounding gender can get in the way of even the best educator’s efforts to give students what they need. Teachers need support and trained eyes to help them see what is occurring in their classrooms in many areas. I have built into the mentor teacher training program a multitude of strategies for mentor teachers to support their colleagues create gender aware lenses for their classrooms.
Great mentor programs empower veteran teachers to find new pathways to leadership that fit their skill sets and help everyone feel more vested in their school communities.
One of the areas which can help teachers the most, particularly those in early childhood and elementary education, is classroom design and construction. Teachers in primary grade levels spend countless hours and pour their labor and love into creating stimulating, safe, and supportive environments for their students. I call the design of classroom space the second (or third) educator for students. However, issues arise when teachers unwittingly send educational messages to students which constitutes counterproductive educational values. An example:
In one school I worked with, I waited until the teachers had constructed their spaces at the beginning of the school year and then proceeded to photograph all of the classrooms' walls and spaces. Having reviewed all of the photos, I asked the teachers to consider a simple question: “According to the walls of the classrooms, what are the educational priorities of the school?” When we broke down over 20 classrooms, we discovered that just under 80% of the classrooms were covered in literacy and language prompts and student work, 10% were inspirational quotes and sayings. 8% were history and science related and just 2% had anything to do with the study of mathematics.
Teachers in primary grade levels spend countless hours and pour their labor and love into creating stimulating, safe, and supportive environments for their students. I call the design of classroom space the second (or third) educator for students.
The teachers were both shocked and surprised by the results. I asked them how much of their actual instructional time was spent on math and obviously the numbers did not proportionally match what they saw on their classroom walls. We discussed and brainstormed strategies for how math might be effectively displayed on the walls and then discussed a more difficult question: why? Why were their classrooms so out of sync with the clear educational imperative to make students not only literate but numerate?
100% of the teachers I worked with at this school were women.
This was not surprising as over 93% of early childhood and primary grade educators in the United States identify as women. A number of the teachers mentioned how math was not a subject they enjoyed in school or even felt confident teaching. This response bears itself out in numerous studies which indicate an important factor in girls struggling to identify as math learners. Math confidence is a generational issue passed down by teachers with low math self esteem often transferring these feelings and thoughts to their female students.
Gender is a powerful signifier for students about what learning matters and what they should be “good at”. When mothers tell their children that they need to wait for their father to come home to help with math homework, both boys and girls receive clear messages about false, innate arguments regarding learning and gender. The same is true in classrooms. The design of classroom space and who designs that space tells a gendered story to students about learning.
Math confidence is a generational issue passed down by teachers with low math self esteem often transferring these feelings and thoughts to their female students.
There are some simple steps that schools can take to make teachers more aware of classroom design in general that also address these implicit biases based on gender. Well trained mentor teachers can have a positive impact! I have constructed a tool for administrators and mentor teachers to use with their faculty in thinking about classroom and school design. It is but one of a number of tools and exercises that I include in my book The Gender Equation in Schools: How to create equity and fairness for all students.
Teachers want to support students to feel that all learning is open and available to them. We need to support them by helping them to widen their lenses on issues such as gender bias and then provide concrete solutions.