#FEMINISTFRIDAY: On Teaching Girls, As a Guy

ChristaMcAuliffe-1
Christa McAuliffe.

“You’re teaching an all-girls’ class?  I’m not sure I feel like that’s right.”

I heard that for the first time… wow, was it four years ago?  Probably.  My homeroom was all girls, and my afternoon class was a mixed group.  I did not reply the number of girls in my classroom doesn’t actually make me more likely to be a sex criminal, ma’am, which was probably the right answer– I am either too much of a degenerate to teach middle school students or I am not, and the composition of my classes doesn’t actually have much of an effect on that– but I don’t remember what I actually said to that mom.  Probably something along the lines of We’ll be fine, and then an abrupt ending of the conversation, because I don’t really like wasting my time with people who blithely suggest that I might be a sex offender as if that’s an okay thing to say to someone.

Hi.  I’m Luther Siler.  And this year, I’m only teaching girls.  Roughly sixty of them, as it currently appears, although with transfers in and transfers out I’ll probably have had seventy to eighty different girls in my room by the end of the school year.  Fifth grade, math and science, meaning that the majority of them will be 10- and 11-year-olds.

Margaret_Hamilton
Margaret Hamilton.

I’m a proponent of single-sex education, although probably not for the reasons that you think.  I’ve found most of the Mars vs. Venus, boys-and-girls-learn-differently brain science stuff to be bunk.  Are there better ways to educate a group of boys and better ways to educate a group of girls?  Yeah.  But you’re identifying a trend, there, and single-sex education is not any more one-size-fits-all than anything else in education is.  I’d have been completely miserable as a boy in an all-boys’ class.  And I hate teaching all-boys’ classes.  I get along with girls better.  I get along with women better than men, too, and all my closest friends have always been women.  So, yeah.  I’m a straight cis dude, external genitalia to prove it, and your daughter will learn from me better than your son will, because that’s how I’m wired.

She will not learn from my genitalia.  Those will not be involved.  Just so I’m clear.  The learning will mostly be from, like, talking and gestures and stuff like that, like normal teaching.

Isis Anchalee.
Isis Wenger.

Anyway.

Teaching girls at the middle school level puts me in an interesting position.  Fifth and sixth grade is typically where girls start disengaging from subjects like math and science, because those subjects are perceived (and, too often, presented) as being For the Boys.  Nobody ever hears about a Boy Scientist, because the boy part is assumed.  Girl Scientist is practically a job description.  And fifth grade is when puberty starts hitting, and suddenly the world doesn’t make any sense anymore anyway.  It’s a hell of a transition year.  Social drama starts ramping up something fierce.  They start fighting over boys– boys who, at that age, generally can’t be bothered to give a damn about the girls fighting over them.  And navigating friendships is the scariest and most complicated thing imaginable.

520px-RIAN_archive_612748_Valentina_Tereshkova
Valentina Tereshkova.

My job, as their teacher, is to help them work their way through all of that.  My job, as their male teacher.

Don’t worry.  I’m actually pretty good at it!  But it’s complicated.   Because here’s the thing: my main job isn’t actually math or science.  My main job is confidence.  My most important job is that these sixty or seventy young girls walk out of my classroom feeling like they are unstoppable.  What does that mean?  It means teaching as a feminist.  It means being a white cis het guy and creating a comfortable and safe multicultural feminist space for my students to learn in anyway.

And it frequently means having to hide that I’m doing it, which is part of what brought me to this topic today.  I teach, again, math and science to fifth grade girls.  I have discovered a fascinating thing over my years as an educator: if I say the word feminist in class, whatever I’m trying to do is instantly derailed.  The girls often don’t like the label, even though they’ll agree that any individual tenet of feminism that I might name is a true and/or correct thing.  Then they go home and tell their parents about it and all the sudden I’ve got to have a conversation with the principal.  So I’ve got to be sneaky about it.  At ten, I’m not sure they really need to have conversations about intersectionality in math class anyway, y’know?  But subtlety works.  I try and use the word she whenever I’m talking about a mathematician or a scientist.  I use pictures like this one rather than a typical white guy in a lab coat.  And I try to teach them, as much as I can, to stand up for each other rather than tear each other down.  That’s teaching feminism, even if I don’t call it that.

Marlena Jackson.
Marlena Jackson.

Should I, though?  Should I make a point of naming feminism in my classroom?  I don’t know.  It does run the risk, of course, of pissing off parents– either because they have a poor opinion of feminism or the somewhat more personally acceptable feeling that maybe their kid’s math teacher should be focusing on math and not politics.  And they are, again, eleven.  I don’t know that they need the word so long as they’re getting the concept.

Then again, I don’t have the kind of principal who is going to get mad at me because I call myself a feminist in class and some yahoo has an issue with it, so maybe I do need the word.  I don’t know.  That might be a question for smarter people to answer for me.


 

Quick note: I’ll be at school all day, so if I don’t respond to comments until, say, early evening, please don’t take it personally.  Phone reception in my building is terrible.

31 thoughts on “#FEMINISTFRIDAY: On Teaching Girls, As a Guy

  1. People frequently misinterpret the word feminism to mean that a person is intentionally promoting women or women’s issues (which are what exactly?) over males rather than thinking a person is just trying to achieve gender equality. It is however somewhat unfortunate that you are making a point to teach an all girl’s class as young guys could equally benefit from seeing pictures of women in science and math positions as part of their daily lessons, but I appreciate the intent.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. This way of deciding who gets which images makes perfect sense to me. Boys need images of both men and women. Girls, at this point and in the context you’ve laid our here, need as many images of women as you can dig up. Wish it weren’t that way, and hope one day it will not be so.

        But you’re right about this one. No doubt in my mind.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. You don’t need to say the word for these girls to somehow “get it”. I don’t remember hearing the term feminism until my teens but I immediately assumed the mantle because female and empowered. And went to an all girls school. You rock, dude.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Just last night I was talking to a coworker about some prospects for a new children’s librarian, and she was weirded out by the possibility of it being a man… We both agreed there are enough horror stories about female teachers for that to NOT be one’s first reaction to a male teacher or librarian, but it still happened.

    Love the idea about diversity in the pictures. That’s important.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You know, it’s interesting, too, how we’ve gendered some professions. That’s happened in modern times, mostly, because women weren’t considered part of the workforce in much of history. Nursing, for instance, became a woman’s profession after the Civil War. Prior to that, it had been a man’s profession almost exclusively. There are Civil War narratives from Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott that make really interesting, though subtle, points about that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have taught preschoolers, so believe me, I know from gendered professions. 🙂 Education gets more male as the kids get older, so at middle school it’s pretty close to 50/50 in every building I’ve been in, but I’ve gotten used to being in a group and hearing “Ladies” when someone tries to get our attention.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. This seems to be the place to mention. I refused to teach kids in the primary and secondary institutions because at the time when I had to make that decison, I was barely older than the high-schoolers, managing the middle-schoolers were out of the question, and teaching K-4 would have meant dealing with all the “are you a predator” looks and comments and such. I wasn’t the man I am now. Couldn’t handle it, when I actually had to make the call, so I went newspapering instead. But I would have made an awesome third-grade teacher.

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  4. The word matters, but action matters more. And so does representation—seeing Margaret Hamilton and Sally Ride and Marlena Jackson matters.

    I’d have been miserable in a single-sex classroom at any age, I think. But I’ve seen studies that suggest that middle school is the best age for single-sex education, and I also think it’s really good to have spaces that a co-ed and still have some single-sex schools. People should have options for both.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Yeah. I’d have been miserable, too.

    Just my personal opinion, but I don’t think you use the actual word in a 5th grade math and science class. I like the way you’re applying the principles, though. And right on about the confidence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah. So lucky. I read the stuff Luther posts. I hope I won’t embarrass him too much by saying that I wish I could have had a teacher who does things the way he does.

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  6. I think it’s important to teach them math and science separately. I know that when I was teaching, I did some research and was surprised to read that teachers (both male and female) call on boys and interact with boys during teaching math and science. It’s not done on purpose. It just happens that way. I watched myself after that and sure enough, I caught myself wanting to call on the boys and noticed that girls were not putting up their hands to volunteer answers or questions or solutions as often as the boys. And they were just as comfortable and proficient at the topics as the boys. So I intentionally called on girls more often. I engaged them in the subject. And withing a week or so, the girls noticed it. They began to raise their hands more often and contribute more often as their confidence grew.

    So I know that there is a difference in how we teach them. I think showing photos of women in the sciences is wonderful. I know that using word story problems that feature women doing things other than cooking, baking, or shopping, is important. I like that you’re doing that.

    As to the word itself, I think it’s important to use it…not daily…but once in awhile. They need the exposure to that concept too.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. And all of this is why I support this kind of teaching despite being (at best) critical of the brain science stuff that often gets trotted out. All of my reasons are social and cultural, not “brains work this way” stuff.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. yup. Social and cultural all the way.

        We are not yet advanced enough to profit from incorporating our understanding of the brain science into the pedagogy at this level. At MIT, maybe.

        A little sad, but not surprising.

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  7. I don’t know how I would have felt being in an all girl math or science class, but those were never my favorite classes anyhow so I don’t think it would have made a huge difference for me… (I was also in Girl Scouts which did a lot of STEM stuff, and in a family where I was constantly doing science-y and math stuff — because my dad was into it). What DID make a difference however was one kick-ass science teacher I had in high school — because he helped make the science we were doing interesting and fun for me (and the entire class).
    The assumptions and fear that accompanies having male teachers working with female students always irks me, it’s such a horrible and harmful attitude. I’ve seen guys who would be AMAZING educators decide NOT to go into it because, as men, they assume people will think bad things about them because they want to work with kids.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. As someone who intentionally avoids using the label of “feminist” unless I’m speaking to people I know will grasp the meaning, I’d say no, you don’t need to use the word. I’ve said before that most of my math and science teachers were female, but I was staff at a preschool for 3 years, so I do have some context for gendered teaching trends. Was thoroughly intimidated by one male science teacher I had; the other let us listen to The Who, so that was cool….

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t tell my (girl) campers that I’m teaching them feminism when we talk about being confident and helping each other and embracing themselves and the differences (or lack thereof) between girls and boys. I don’t say “feminist” when I talk about problematic representation of girls in movies/on TV or loving their bodies. My girls are too young (6-8) to understand “feminism,” so instead of risking detachment, I’d rather make it accessible. I don’t care if they decide they don’t like the term later, as long as they are being kind to each other and proud of themselves now.

    Liked by 3 people

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  11. Ugh. I hate that I missed this on Friday! No matter, it is an excellent post and so important! I think a teacher, especially a male teacher, communicating these things to young girls is a hugely powerful thing. The fact that parents get “concerned” or angry about you even uttering the word is disturbing. I hate that people view feminism as a political thing to begin with. Not all causes are political. Yes, legislation plays a huge role in the cause but it’s no different than cancer awareness and treatment that also relies on government legislation for funding and research. My husband and I have debates over this word all the time. He argues that we would get a lot further in reaching people if we stopped using that label. Anyways, we need more teachers like you. Who are aware of the subtleties that influence kids and how they learn and how they perceive things.

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