• Educating Gender

Tomboy Versus Sissy: Crossings Versus Boundaries



As someone who has spent over 25 years hiring faculty and staff for schools, one of my favorite interview questions which I ask candidates for teaching positions is: How were you as a student? What was school like for you? 

The answer requires significant reflection and takes out a lot of the phony BS which can be generated by someone who is looking for a job. The answers are typically pretty candid, pretty honest, and give me plenty of information regarding what kind of teacher I might be hiring. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, there is no other profession like education where the professional has already spent such a significant part of their lives in the environment in which they will now be making a living. Lawyers do not spent the first 12 years of their lives in courtrooms and doctors did not spend 7 hours a day when they were 11 years old in a hospital. How educators relate to themselves as students speaks volumes to how they think about education in general and how they emotionally relate to this place called school. 

One of the more interesting responses I get is when a woman candidate will admit to being a tomboy when she was growing up. This experience of being considered perceived as “boy-like” in school is not mentioned with negative connotations. Most women take some pride in the fact that they were athletic and were allowed, even invited by the other boys to play in their competitive and organized sports games. They also relish the memory, if real or not, that they had wider social interactions than the other girls because they spent more of their time with the boys. In an interview for a teaching position, it becomes a way of communicating to me that they feel emotionally prepared to confidently engage with all of the students in the class and they specifically “get” the boys because of their experiences growing up.

Most women take some pride in the fact that they were athletic and were allowed, even invited by the other boys to play in their competitive and organized sports games.

I appreciate that perspective and the sensitivity. Many female teachers (and male teachers) feel puzzled by the opposite sex in their classrooms and often the best they can do is apply maternal or paternal instincts, particularly if they are the mother of boys or the fathers of girls at home.

What also interests me about this conversation in interviews is that male candidates never voluntarily tell me that they were called sissies growing up.

There are no positive or romantic stories that men have about being associated with the opposite sex or being labeled as feminine. Boys and eventually men never get to feel as if there were positive connotations to have girls as friends at a young age or being invited by the girls to play four square on the recess yard or being that one boy to play house rather than rough housing on the carpet in kindergarten. And, the labeling, name calling and yes, verbal harassment that boys endure through this name calling (sissy being the most bland, I can imagine) has no positive reinforcing connotation to it. Boys are called a girl to insult them and bring them down.

There are no positive or romantic stories that men have about being associated with the opposite sex or being labeled as feminine.  

Male teachers who I interview who identify as gay often talk about having had to lay low as children and teens. They worked hard to remain on the fringes of both the boy and girl cultures at their schools. They kept their friendships outside of school as their primary social engagements and made sure to surround themselves with students who would act as allies. If they hung around the girls, they became targets and if they hung around the boys, they feared being exposed as not boy or manly enough. To be a sissy was to be identified as a failed male.

In sociologist Barrie Thorne’s study, Gender Play, she identifies this phenomenon as crossings versus boundaries. There are certainly examples of where boys do cross over into the world of girls, but the high fences for boys present an extremely rigid and predetermined set of identifiers which boys cross at their own peril. Young girls have more opportunities to cross over into the realm of boys with considerably less pushback and negative fallout.  “Kids target their most severe teasing at boys…who repeatedly seek access to girls’ activities in a respectful and serious rather than a hassling or experimenting style.” * (See source below.) She goes on to explain that the boys who have the least leverage, those who are already on the “high fences” of marginalized versions of masculinity have the most to lose.

There are certainly examples of where boys do cross over into the world of girls, but the high fences for boys present an extremely rigid and predetermined set of identifiers which boys cross at their own peril.

But ultimately, we all have plenty to lose when boys feel hemmed in and fearful of seeking other social arrangements than what are dictated by gender biases and stereotypes. Schools are most effective, not just when the basic conditions of safety are met, but when children feel that they have access to many and multiple possibilities for learning and growing. Adults in schools need to create circumstances where there are no boundaries or rigid definitions that define the self, particularly surrounding gender, and where positive associations are developed over individual and collective choice.


*Thorne, Barrie. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993. p. 130.

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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.

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