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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Response: Challenges Faced By Women Teachers & Ways To Respond To Them

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 06, 2015 21 min read
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This week’s question is:

What are the challenges facing women in the teaching profession and how best to respond to them?

Women make up the vast majority of K-12 teachers - 76 percent. Yet, only 52% of public school principals are female. What does that discrepancy say about women in education today? And what other challenges might women teachers face?

Today’s column features a discussion on this topic joined by educators Megan M. Allen, Rusul Alrubail, Pernille Ripp, Amy Williams and Patricia (Tish) Jennings. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Megan, Rusul and National Teacher Of The Year Shanna Peeples on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in a previous series in this column on the challenges facing men in the teaching profession:

Male Teachers ‘Walking A Tight Rope’

Wondering ‘How Gender Influences a Teacher’s Struggles & Successes’

Response From Megan M. Allen

Megan M. Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year. She currently is serving as the director at Mount Holyoke Programs in Teacher Leadership, which has just launched an online Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership. She has taught for ten years, most as an elementary and special education teacher, serving in Title One schools in Hillsborough County, FL. Megan enjoys blogging for the Center for Teaching Quality at Musings of a Red Headed Teacher and co-hosting #Edugeekchat the 2ndand 4th Thursday of every month (visit the archives here). She is also proud to serve on the Board of Directors for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Alliance for Public Schools, but most excited about her new learning experience of being a new mom to four wild and wonderful children:

I think about gender dynamics a lot in education, especially in education leadership.

I didn’t want to even consider being a teacher, mainly because of the gender of the profession. When I began teaching in 2003, the percentage of the teaching population that was female was about 75%, which is similar to how it shakes out now at about 76%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. I know that this sounds horrible, but I had worked my whole life to be the only girl on my tennis team, the only girl playing football with the boys at p.e., one of the few girls in my science and math classes. I liked the struggle and the uphill fight of showing the boys what a girl could do. My parents had raised miniature Rosie the Riveter, right down to the pint-sized muscles and bandana. So how would working in an almost all female profession continue that battle that I loved?

Turns out, though I have worked in an almost all female schools, the education leadership playgrounds that I run in are just the opposite. As a woman, I’m still fighting for equal footing for my gender.

I have had my head patted--literally--by a white-haired good-ole-boy Florida politician when I was advocating in Tallahassee for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, saying that it was “so sweet to see an elementary teacher like me interested in politics” (would he have done that to a MAN!?!). I have sat in rooms discussing teacher leadership, listening to all male panels laid out in front of me. More recently, I saw a photograph of the advisory panel of a struggling district--almost all (white) men. And last month, I sat at a leadership dinner with 12 people, of which the two lone men at the table seemed to dominate the conversation. Gender dynamics fascinate me, but they make my blood boil as well.

This was a topic written my teacher extraordinaire and Ed Week blogger Nancy Flanagan, which then inspired an #edugeekchat that I cohosted titled “Do we have a gender issue in education leadership?” The more I get into the thick of leadership, the more I see this as one of many glaring equity issues.

So what’s a girl to do?

Jump in.

We must continue to speak for our profession, speak for our students, and fight for spots at the leadership table. And when we get to that literal or metaphorical table, we must not be afraid to speak out.

And more importantly, we need to encourage our colleagues to do the same. We need education leaders that look like the population of students that we serve, that represent the beautiful array of colors, backgrounds, and diversity that sits in our classrooms. And we need women. We are each others best allies.

By the way, that Florida politician’s jaw dropped once I started talking and he realized that I was much more than a cute little elementary school teacher, but an advocate, a researcher, and someone who knows her stuff. That I can hang with the Florida good ole’ boys club.

So let’s show ‘em, ladies.

Response From Rusul Alrubail

Rusul Alrubail is a writer on education, teaching and learning. Her work focuses on teacher development and training, English language learners, and pedagogical practices in and out of the classroom. She is also the editor of The Synapse: Medium.com‘s largest publication on Learning, Teaching and Education. Before taking up freelance writing, Rusul was an English professor for 6 years to first year college students:

Being a woman teacher has had its many challenges for me, but the great thing about these challenges is that I always had a strategy to deal with them. That is not to say that women should learn to deal with these challenges as a normal part of teaching. In fact, I hope by discussing this issue and writing about it, there is more awareness to the general treatment and perception of female teachers.

Women make up the majority of the teaching force, yet there are still challenges that we face in the classroom. Much of these challenges have to do with power, communication, and unresolved biases.

Classroom management is probably the most challenging aspect of teaching for a woman teacher. I found it to be challenging at times if a group of boys, or rarely, a group of girls refuses to stay on task and focus. I also notice it is often not their lack of engagement with the task itself, but that they’re looking to get my attention and also test my limits when it comes to patience and classroom management in front of the other students.

When I felt that my limits of patience were being tested, I go directly to the group and ask them questions about the task and their progress. This often gets them to slightly focus on their work.

If the students choose to remain off task, I will address the behaviour right away in a calm manner but firm manner. For example, if the students were required to answer questions, I would say “Please focus on answering question x, we will be sharing our answers soon”. Or allow students to see that you care about their work: “Have you answered question 2? I am really looking forward to hearing your answer!”

In situations that become a bit more difficult to manage in the classroom, I would discuss the issue privately with each student who is involved.

As a new teacher, another challenge was feeling like I needed to project my voice more than its capacity to get my students’ attention after an activity. This was difficult, I am usually told I am a soft-spoken person, so it felt like it was out of my comfort zone to project my voice to the room. Instead, the pause and wait strategy works most of them time. I stand in the middle of the classroom, where everyone can see me and say “may I have your attention please?”. This might take a few minutes of you awkwardly standing there, and waiting. If a minute passes by raise your hand and repeat your statement, that should work. For younger students, especially when working on projects, it often can get very noisy, so I try “If you can hear me clap once, if you can hear me clap twice”. The clapping strategy works all the time because it’s fun and gets students interested in its rhythmic power to pay attention.

As a female teacher, I know that I am faced with certain obstacles and challenges due to my gender and race, but often times communication with students and understanding on both ends helps to solve this problem. Ultimately, student relationships are important to maintain in the classroom, and if a teacher is faced with a situation that challenges a healthy relationship with the student, she needs to communicate this to the student and share her feelings. In this way, the student sees the teacher as a human being, with feelings, thoughts and emotions. With redirection, open-communication, and respect female teachers can overcome a few of the challenges they face in the classroom.

Please remember that if a teacher is feeling harassed, threatened, or bullied, such acts should not be taken lightly and need to be reported immediately.

Response From Pernille Ripp

Mass consumer of incredible books, Pernille Ripp, helps students discover their superpower as a former 5th grade teacher, but now 7th grade teacher, in Oregon, Wisconsin. She opens up her educational practices and beliefs to the world on her blog www.pernillesripp.com and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that since 2010 has connected more than 600,000 students. Her book “Passionate Learners - How to Engage and Empower Your Students” has been published by Routledge. Her second book “Empowered Schools, Empowered Students” was published by Corwin:

The first time I realized being a female educator could work against me happened during my first job rejection phone call. I thought I had had a pretty good chance at the job, I was known at the school and thought I had interviewed well. And yet, when the principal started his sentence with the dreaded “I am sorry, but...” my heart dropped. When I later realized that not only had I lost the job, but I had lost it to a male teacher who had quit teaching but the principal had recruited him to come back, I was confused. Didn’t I have the same qualifications as the other teacher? Would I not have been just as good of a fit? Yet, after I was hired, I realized that a male educator at the elementary level will almost always trump a female teacher, that since male educators are needed to fill the void of all those boys that do not need more females in their lives they are always given a bigger chance at an interview. Because males are needed to balance out “all those women.” Because males are needed to do those things that female educators will never do, whatever those may be. So for the past 7 years I have tried to be just as good as all of the male educators I work with, if not better.

The second time I realized that being a female educator could work against me happened when l went to my first education conference. As I searched through the program looking for sessions to attend, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the featured speakers were male; male superintendents, male consultants, male principals, and even male teachers all seemed to be the ones in the spotlight. Where were all the females? Why, in a female dominated profession, were we not highlighting all of the female educators out there doing amazing things? And yet, that conference was not an exception. Almost every conference I have been to since has a larger male speaker population than female. So I started submitting my own proposals and slowly began speaking at more conferences, and yet, I am almost always one of the few females featured.

The third time I realized that being a female educator could work against me happened when a previous school searched for a new principal. We had 3 final candidates; two females and one male. And so in the lounge that day, I asked; what are we looking for? What are we hoping for? I was shocked when several female educators stated that they hoped the principal would be male because we did not need any more female drama in our school. I left the lounge swearing to do something about the negativity even us female educators carry about ourselves and each other and yet to this day, I still see it in many places. Why is it at times a bad thing to be a female educator?

Part of the blame lies within the society we work in. For years I have noticed that we females are “supposed” to be educators. That when we tell others that we are teachers, they are not surprised. After all, we women, are nurturing, caring, and meant for the rigors of the job. Yet, when a male declares himself to be a teacher there is a newfound respect as if being a teacher is a noble deed, one that means he is sacrificing himself in some way, much like we do with male nurses. Why is that? Why is that even within our own schools we tend to value male teachers more than females? And how can we stop being a part of it? How can we look past what sex someone is and just appreciate the fact that they are an educator and not dole out different values and assumptions based on their gender?

Part of the blame lies within ourselves as well, myself included. So I think it is time we have a courageous conversation with ourselves. Are we placing more weight on the opinions of male educators? Are we bringing a submissive female mindset into what we think an administrator should look like? Are we inherently devaluing other females because we assume they are all of those stereotypes that are applied to women? What are we doing to lift others up rather than tear down? Are we pushing our voices out there via social media, conferences, and leadership positions so that being a female educational leader becomes the norm and not the exception? What can we do to change the unequal balance that lies within the education community when it comes to leadership positions and spotlighted educators?

Since there is nothing I can do about the fact that I am a female educator, and not anything I would want to do about it anyway, I can change the conversations I am having. I can point out the inequities I see, I can ask for more female leadership, I can build up other women rather than tear down. So many of the barriers we face as female teachers are ones stemming from within our own community of women, and that we can change. But the change starts with us, not by waiting for others to tell us to change.

Response From Amy Williams

Amy Williams holds Masters degrees in English and teaching. She was a New York Educator Voice Resident Fellow in the 2014-15 school year, and was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Grant recipient in 2014. Amy teaches high school and college English courses in Upstate New York:

I recently wrote an article for Education Week Teacher in which I argue for productive inquiry into problems associated with gender and teaching at the K-12 level. The goal of talking about gender is to improve teaching and to improve educational experiences for students. We know now that we can’t discuss “students” as though they all share the same ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or gender. Educational tools and practices designed to meet the needs of educationally-privileged children living in Manhattan shouldn’t be expected to work the same with English Language Learners living in Arizona. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to imagine that educators are all the same, or that various aspects of a teacher’s identity don’t influence their experience in the classroom.

Several university professors have documented their experiences with misogyny in the classroom. In a Ms. magazine blog article, for example, Ebony Utley writes: “Many male and female students’ impertinent gendered expectations lead them to approach me as a peer, a potential girlfriend and an imposter--anyone other than an academic authority figure.” White, straight, male professors tend to benefit from student prejudices. They’re more likely to be seen as “brilliant,” less likely to be critiqued for the way that they dress, and less likely to face resistance from students. At the college level, these student biases can affect decisions about teacher tenure and promotions. They also place women educators and faculty of color in unique ethical dilemmas. As Ming-yeh Lee and Juanita Johnson-Baiely write in their 2004 New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education article: "[C]lassroom power structures often mirror those of society in that women of color faculty have limited power in affecting the teaching setting. So when students perceive us as having less authority and power, to what extent should we share power with them?” (62).

If these kinds of interactions and power struggles happen at the K-12 level, then how are teachers affected, and how are they responding? More precisely, are teachers punishing students, letting inappropriate comments slide, or respectfully confronting students with the end goal of changing their attitudes? How are these teachers handling their own frustrations when confronted with demeaning behaviors or comments? And are straight, white male teachers disrupting student biases, or remaining oblivious to the ways in which they benefit from these prejudices? Once we get over our gender blindness, we can begin addressing questions like these that may help us to flesh out, and elaborate on problems in our education system like teacher retention.

If we think about “gender” more broadly to refer to behaviors gendered as “masculine” and “feminine” like dominance/aggression versus caring, then critical discussions about gender could also work to promote more ethical discussions surrounding the use of punishment in classrooms. After all, something is not currently working with classroom management and discipline in the United States if millions of students still receive out-of-school suspensions that set them up for failure in the long-run. It makes sense for us to question why teachers and administrators exert authority in this way.

I don’t have a solution to problems associated with gender and power in the classroom, but I do believe in the power of collaboration. I’d like to see more evidence-based discussions with educators working to share ideas, and seek out productive and ethical solutions.

Unfortunately, a lack of research on this subject makes it more risky to discuss concerns related to gender, because teachers must frame these discussions around their own personal experiences, and thus open themselves up to critique. Because teachers already face so much scrutiny from the public, there may be a fear that open discussions about gender will be read as merely complaints about students, or as evidence of some kind of personal or professional shortcoming.

Response From Patricia Jennings

Patricia (Tish) Jennings, MEd, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is an internationally recognized leader in the field of social and emotional learning with a specific emphasis on teacher stress and how it impacts the context of the classroom and student learning. As Senior Director of the Initiative on Contemplative Teaching and Learning at the Garrison Institute, Dr. Jennings lead the faculty team that developed the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE for Teachers), a mindfulness-based program for teachers designed to reduce stress and promote improvements in classroom climate and student academic and behavioral outcomes. She is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom. Watch a short video trailer for Mindfulness for Teachers, and visit Dr. Jennings at //www.tishjennings.com/ and //www.facebook.com/mindfulnessforteachers:

A growing body of research shows that the teachers who are most effective at classroom management are both warm and demanding. Their warmth helps them build strong relationships with their students, and their demands communicate high expectations for behavior and achievement.

Like many new female teachers, warmth came easily for me. I became a teacher because I love kids and wanted to make a positive difference in their lives. However, that first year of teaching, it was especially challenging for me to be demanding. While I received excellent training in classroom management, I had no idea how to get my students to pay attention and respond to my directions. I had the mistaken idea that if I was nice to them, they would like me and behave well to please me. I quickly learned that this was not an effective strategy. As my frustration grew, a cold harshness crept into my communications.

One day a supervisor came to observe me to evaluate my progress. During our meeting after class she said, “Did you know that after every direction you give your students you say, ‘Okay?’? You are also turning statements into questions by raising the tone of your voice at the end. This gives your students the message that your directions are optional suggestions, and you give away your power.” I was so unaware of this tendency that this feedback was a total surprise. No wonder my students were so unresponsive! I had been sabotaging myself by unintentionally conveying the impression that my directions were optional.

When I began teaching classroom management to teacher candidates and supervising interns, I found that this problem is very common among women teachers. I observed female teachers and their female interns using a passive style of communication as they gave directions and tried to communicate expectations.

Exploring this issue further, I learned that this is a very common tendency among women in general. In the U.S., girls are often socialized to be overly polite and accommodating. Many of us learned early that pleasing others is important. We learned to qualify our comments with question tag lines such as, “This is really fun, isn’t it?” and to minimize our communications by including words like “just” and using suggestions rather than direct communications: “I think it would be best if you would just finish this assignment before lunch.” Contrast that sentence with: “Finish the assignment before lunch,” which is a direct and unqualified command.

Some children eventually learn to understand that this passive language is a way of expressing expectations. However, children who grow up in families where this way of communicating is not the norm may not. Unfortunately, teachers often mistake their students’ misunderstanding as misbehavior and peg them as defiant. Culturally responsive teachers recognize that these students simply don’t understand the communication style, and they take responsibility for communicating in a way that their students can understand.

By applying mindful awareness to observing and monitoring my speech, I overcame this habit and developed a warm but also firm and demanding style of communication. As my students began to respond to this new communication style, it reinforced my sense of teaching efficacy, so important to a teacher’s first years. This experience opened my eyes to the importance of what we say to students and how we say it. It also reinforced for me the value of applying mindfulness to build the necessary self-awareness to monitor our speech and behavior.

Response From Readers

Thanks to Megan, Rusul, Pernille, Amy and Patricia, and to readers, for their contributions!

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