Education Opinion

Men Explain Things to Teachers

By Nancy Flanagan — June 23, 2014 4 min read
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Just finished Rebecca Solnit’s excellent collection of essays, which begins with the title piece, Men Explain Things to Me, her well-known article on being patronized by men who don’t have a clue that they consistently underestimate female accomplishments and intelligence.

I hear ya, Rebecca. And I have my own “men explain things to me” stories. Here’s one:

I am the (freebie) afternoon keynote at a gathering of exemplary teachers in a Midwestern state. I have some things in common with the audience, all of whom have won awards for outstanding teaching, and about 90% of whom are women. The (expensive) morning keynoter is a well-known national figure and author, speaking on his new (best-selling) book.

The first thing that bothers me is that he hasn’t bothered to customize his slide deck. Clearly, he last did this presentation in Arizona, because all the slides refer to the AIMS testing. He doesn’t notice this, at first. When someone asks “What does AIMS mean?” he tells them to substitute the acronym for their statewide assessments--which he doesn’t know, offhand.

There are some viable ideas in his presentation--about professional learning groups and small, reachable goals. But then he puts up a slide asserting that students who aren’t reading at grade level should be pulled from art, music, physical education and recess for remedial work--not just for a day or two, but until they reach grade level. I look around the room--a few teachers look as if they might find this idea debatable, but most of them have their eyes down. It’s just another conference, just another expert telling them how to teach the children they know well, how to pump up those scores.

I am not, technically, part of this audience--I am an observer, there to do a separate presentation in the afternoon. But I can’t believe nobody’s questioning what seems like a problematic strategy. The logistics alone are difficult--most “special” classes serve as planning time for teachers--and there is ample evidence that students need regular physical exercise to stay alert and ready to learn. So--taking a deep breath, I publicly disagree with Famous Author.

He seems stunned by my remarks, and a little angry. He says, curtly, “When you can show me that singing or finger-painting or playing kickball will improve students’ reading scores, I’m ready to listen.”

I am, however, ready for this discussion. I can cite lots of research that demonstrates the positive effects of studying the arts and physical education on “academic” work. While he stands, arms folded, I mention a few recent studies. I’m a music teacher, after all. I have been collecting and filing this kind of research for two decades, part of my arsenal of reasons not to cut programming in my own district. Furthermore, I know how exactly kids feel when the one school activity they love is yanked away, because their scores are low: resentful and embarrassed. Not motivated.

He moves on to the next slide, without comment. At lunch, we are seated next to each other at the presenters’ table--he’s clearly surprised to learn that I am also on the program. I smile and ask if he’d like me to send him links to the studies I mentioned. He shifts his chair, turning his back on me, and after consuming the main course, leaves the table, to hang out in the lobby, thumbing his cell phone and waiting for his taxi to the airport. Later, a few teachers from the audience approach and thank me for raising the issue. All of them are women.

It’s an ordinary story. And hardly definitive. But--as Solnit deftly points out--a great deal of bias goes unrecognized and unacknowledged in ordinary life in a male-dominated culture. Folks in education--male and female--just don’t see it, or feel it. Or the huge imbalance in power and influence is obscured by a handful of women who serve as highly visible role models.

Do the math, however--about 84% of K-12 teachers in the United States are female, a rapidly increasing disproportion. Combined with the fact that the modal level of teacher experience is currently one year, it’s easy to see how major shifts in curriculum, instruction, assessment and hiring have been accomplished. Nobody’s pushing back.

Peter DeWitt, in an excellent blog, asks: How is compliance working out for you?

The dirty little secret that many school leaders will never say in public, but talk about behind closed doors, is that they want teachers to be compliant. They do not want teachers who will be outspoken at faculty meetings, because they just want people who will follow the rules.

DeWitt calls for “warriors” who don’t want to maintain the status quo. Something to think about, however, as we consider why there are so few overtly vocal education warriors in the trenches: Who has been culturally conditioned to lead the opposition--and who has been culturally conditioned to avoid “negativity?”

When I graduated from college, I applied for a job as the middle school band teacher in the district where I grew up. My high school band teacher and principal were on the hiring committee. I had terrific on-paper credentials--plus, I was a known quantity as a musician and leader.

I didn’t get the job. In the interview, my former teacher explained “I just can’t get used to the idea of a gal band director.” In the mid-70s, there were very few women in secondary band jobs, but I thought I had an inside track. Evidently not. What’s surprising to me now, in hindsight, is how tolerant I was at being told--by kindly men I had been taught to respect--that I was the wrong gender for my own career choice.

There are so many critical power struggles in the educational sphere, it’s easy to overlook gender bias. But it’s there. And it explains a lot.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.