Teach First participant and Primary School teacher, Phoebe Rudgard, questions whether teachers inadvertently play a role in reinforcing gender stereotypes in the classroom.
‘Would you say my son is an alpha male?’
This was the question that, during one November parents evening, caused me to stare across the table and wonder if I could have possibly heard correctly.
‘Excuse me?’ I said, ‘I don’t quite understand. Are you asking me if your six-year-old son is an alpha male?’
‘Yes.’ The father replied, looking me squarely in the face. ‘He cries a lot and I’ve told him he needs to man up or the other boys will laugh at him.’
Did I begin to inform him that his son was entitled to express his emotions in any way he felt inclined to? Did I explain to him that by pressurising his son to ‘act like a man’ he was unconsciously conditioning him to adopt a potentially harmful and toxic masculinity?
No. I didn’t. Instead, I awkwardly brushed over the question and told him that he was doing just fine.
The global dialogue around gender and masculinity has opened in recent years, and many of us are much more aware of the ways in which society influences our attitudes towards gendered stereotypes. However, this experience, amongst others during my two years as a primary school teacher, caused me to question the role that education, and most importantly the givers of that education- teachers- are having on letting harmful gender norms continue to persist within the classroom. I naively imagined that as a teacher, I wouldn’t struggle to make it clear how important I considered gender equality to be, and that by the summer term my 30 Year 2 pupils would all be certified, card carrying feminists.
However, from commenting on how pretty or beautiful the girls look when they arrive into school with their hair done in fishtail plaits, to begrudgingly accepting six-year olds having punch ups in the playground with the reasoning that ‘boys will be boys’, teaching staff are often guilty of unconsciously permitting lazy stereotyping to reign. One teacher observed a member of staff in her school telling a crying five-year-old boy to ‘man up’ and stop it. Another teacher told me that on considering her own practice, she realised that she had only ever been asking the girls in her Year 9 class to do the cleaning and tidying up.
Aren’t we therefore part of the problem?
An excellent report in 2013 by the NUT highlighted the affect that teaching practitioners’ language and actions have on young children and how they shape their views on gender and masculinity. Five years later, its findings are still just as relevant. As the report states, ‘Challenging gender stereotypes is likely to have widely beneficial effects in terms of improving educational and life outcomes for both genders, helping young people and adults to have respectful and fulfilling relationships and improving behaviour in our classrooms’ (NUT, 2015).
The impact of gender stereotyping goes far further than entrenching certain behaviours within the classroom however; the high male crime rates in the UK are now widely being attributed to the pervasiveness of hypermasculinity in society (Telegraph, 2015) and the number of women entering global STEM industries, traditionally male environments, is still shockingly low (UNESCO, 2017), to name just a few examples.
But how can we be part of the change?
Global Dimension has an excellent bank of resources on the topic of gender, with ideas both for introducing key issues with your pupils, and initiating the conversation with other teachers within your school. Consider your own behaviour within the classroom; do you react to the negative behaviour of all children fairly and equally? Are you challenging stereotypical language you may hear from colleagues? Are you giving all pupils equal opportunities?
By striving to model inclusive, open and non-bias approaches to gender to both pupils and their parents, we can, often in subtle ways, begin to challenge the existence of harmful stereotypes directly from the most valuable learning environment in life; the classroom.
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