“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.