• Educating Gender

Teacher Student; Student Teacher



“When adults seek to learn about and from children, the challenge is to take the closely familiar and to render it strange.”

Barrie Thorne, Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School



I spent much of my earlier career as an educator wondering, imagining, and dreaming about what I was giving my students. Whether it was in the context of a classroom, writing lesson plans and constructing learning experiences, or as an administrator, introducing new curricula or learning programs through professional development, my most persistent question was: “how is this value added for my students, for the children in my school”? 

My direct contact with students was always framed as supporter, modeler, articulator, coherence maker, referrer, consoler, intimidator, and laugh inducer. These thoughts were always ruminations on a similar theme, “What am I or we as a school doing for our children?” 

This question is the explicit and implicit question of every school I have worked in. It has been at the center of most of my discussions with individual educators who are my colleagues, the primary subject of numerous conferences I have attended and the central goal in the graduate programs I have taught. The trajectory of energy and thought and emotional consideration typically goes in one direction. And, for good reason. As professionals, we are responsible for the well being of our students and what we can do to help them develop into their best selves. This perspective necessitates adults examining the human and material resources available to them in order to get this done.

On another level, I find this to be an entirely false narrative -- one which distorts and disables our ability to truly serve our students.

My emerging understanding of this framing, based on my professional experience as well as my work with gender in schools, is a much more complicated narrative. Teachers go into education for many reasons. Certainly not for material gain, educators know that they do receive a form of psychic income which is unique, irreplaceable, and of infinite value. Our work provides a sense of human dignity which no purchased object could ever replace. Most educators also know that they are making a real impact, daily, on the world in which they live. For those of us who work in schools, the evidence is all around us; even though, on some days, it can feel like the world is conspiring against our potential success.

The trajectory of energy and thought and emotional consideration typically goes in one direction. And, for good reason. We are responsible as professionals for the well being of our students and what we can do to help them develop into their best selves.

The sense of power and responsibility is awesome. And, it has the ability to intoxicate to the point where we can lose sight of what is really occurring between students and adults. Because, the real success is not found in what educators do for children, but in what we do for each other. 

Schools work best when we willingly support each other at our most vulnerable and acknowledge our strengths as well. It is only when there is a vast and complex interplay of needs and wants and desires being met, by everyone and for everyone, that real education occurs.  


A simple example.


I am a big user of humor in my classrooms as an educational tool. I am also strategic and thoughtful about what it means to make students laugh and under what conditions in order to enhance the educational experience of my students. Laughter serves a number of key purposes. It lightens the mood in the room. It creates a human connection with the students. It allows them to see how language can be used in different ways when we are problem solving. It has a somatic impact on the students; their bodies relax when they laugh. Students are able to take a mental “break” from what we are doing in order to re-engage, taking away the monolithic (monotonous) drone of learning. The benefits of humor speak to the critical way in which the learning experience of the students can be enhanced. However, it leaves out a critical component: the students contribute to my teaching by responding to my sometimes failed attempts at funny.

The corollary to the idea that if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound is, if someone tells a joke but there is no one there to hear it, was something funny said? I am making myself quite vulnerable when I try to be humorous. I need a response for it to work, to feel as if it is working. I need them as much as they need me. When the students engage, when they respond, when they laugh, they are adding as much to the educational experience as I am. I am no educator without my students. The honest truth is that I have as many wants and needs and desires as they do. I just neatly package them into the convenient framing of me doing something for them. A classroom can be empty even when it is full of students. We all need to be present to the moment, attentive to one another’s needs, ready to serve and be served in order for this to work. I can only give what is willing to be taken and my students would stop taking if they felt I was unwilling to accept what they had to give.

We all need to be present to the moment, attentive to one another’s needs, ready to serve and be served in order for this to work. I can only give what is willing to be taken and my students would stop taking if they felt I was unwilling to accept what they had to give.

And, without too much dancing, back to the question of gender. It is one thing if teachers look out on their classrooms and ignore the fact that there is a world of gender experiences before them. Most teachers would immediately respond, “of course, that’s so obvious.” And, in my experience working with and training teachers, they are ready to admit that they do not have the necessary tools or training to understand how to support gender equity and fairness. They want to serve their students well and create truly supportive environments in their classrooms. What is a much more complex question is how are our students impacting and informing the gender assumptions and constructs that we have as teachers: Not just in how it shapes our professional personas, but our personal sensibilities as well? 

We are having more of these conversations than we have ever had before; however, it currently takes the form of the “do no harm” conversation. Schools are rightly concerned about who is touching whom, appropriate behaviors and language regarding gender that might impact children who are vulnerable to adult power. But this leaves out the possibility of shaping a gender conversation in school which could so positively impact the learning and lives of our students. And, back to my original point, let’s get real. The adults in the building have much to gain, if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and admit that the business of schools works because it is a two-way street.



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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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