• Educating Gender

Under the Microscope (Origin Story II)


It is Fall of 1994 and I am in my second year of teaching and being the English department chair of a school with a unique structure and environment. The school is one single entity but with two campuses, a girls' campus and a boys' campus which are a 2 minute 40 second distance from each other driving. The teachers would teach the girls in the morning and then over in the afternoon to contend with the boys. In hiring new teachers, I could almost predict exactly when they would switch from thinking that the best place to be was at the girls' school. It took about 2 months of teaching in both places to realize that this logic was far from accurate.  

On a personal level, I am rocking my profession. After surviving the gauntlet of the first year, the parents are all clamouring to have me be their child’s teacher. I am the soup du jour, and by my own wise 29 year old humble estimation, the best teacher in the school.

In October, four post doctoral students come to my principal and ask if they can study my classroom for the year. They will visit on a number of occasions, observing me teach my 10th grade girls class in the morning and then what should be my equally successful 10th grade boys class in the afternoon. They are clear with my principal and me that they are here to study gender. Their research focuses on implicit bias, particularly in regard to verbal and physical cues from teachers toward students. I am all in because they are going to learn so much from me about how to make these two classes equitable and fair. With my heightened sensitivities and profound sense of fairness, their obsevations of my teaching will give future generations of teachers a clear road map for eliminating discrimination in the classroom. I am clearly such a blessing for the profession.

By becoming more aware of my own patterns of gender bias, I was becoming a better teacher and educator.

After a year, we all sit down together and go over the data and results of their observations. The researchers have been in my classrooms on both campuses at least 20 times. These are cold statisticians, academics with no chits in this game and really, on some level, completely uninterested in how I assimilate their findings. And, for that reason, they are exactly the medicine this young teacher needs. You can run, but you can’t hide.

I spend the next two hours in one of the most personally and professionally excruciating evaluations of my character and have still yet to experience anything like it over the next 26 years. In other words, their numbers and spreadsheets, rip me apart.  I do not think they had one positive thing to say about how I handled gender in the classroom. They had several positive things to say about me as a teacher in general, I was well prepared for class, my energy was high, I had an easy going rapport with the students...I could hear none of it. I was too humbled by the results to hear and assimilate anything else. And, in a nutshell, what did they say?

  • I let girls off the hook. They were only called on when they raised their hands.

  • They get to kick back. Daydreaming and lack of engagement are actually being encouraged. My problem, not theirs.

  • I am consistently cutting them off in mid sentence, not letting them finish their thoughts.

  • You are passive about their passivity.

  • You tell them, in all sorts of ways, that risk taking is overrated.

  • You limit your sense of humor and sarcasm for the fear of hurting or offending.

  • They are largely not listening and you think they are. (I am promoting obedience as an educational value.) 

  • They disrupt your class (in a different way than the boys) and you do not express firmly your disapproval.

Whereas:

  •  You are tough, sometimes too tough with the boys.

  • Their leash is so short, they are scared to get out of line or take risks. (Same problem with girls, just coming from the opposite direction!)

  • However, when they speak up, you do celebrate their risk taking.

  • My banter with the boys is looser and less confining. They trust you in a different way than the girls and the boys benefit.

And, in both cases, you do not know your students well enough.  In other words, I am not paying attention specifically to who they are in order to serve their educational needs. This last point was particularly devastating as I saw myself as close to my students and truly desiring to get to know them. Teachers often confuse friendly and personable and approachable with the ability to get to know children well. What I learned that day was that the former is a personality trait which drives many of us into the field of education while the latter, the ability to truly understand students as learners, is a skill -- one which requires years of practice, refinement and training.

As I became more cognizant of my biases in the classroom and began working to rectify my practice, my understanding of gender in the classroom also shifted. Yes, the main point is that children deserve equity in the classroom. Educators need to work hard to ensure that we are not the issue standing in the way of each single student receiving an excellent education. There was also something more I came to understand, however. By becoming more aware of my own patterns of gender bias, I was becoming a better teacher and educator. Understanding my classroom from a gender perspective allowed me to practice my craft and profession at a much higher level. For all of us in education, it is a necessary form of professional development.

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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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