In our profession, it’s necessary to develop a thick skin. Teachers have to learn how to accept criticism gracefully so that we can deal with students and colleagues in a professional manner.
But for women and teachers of color, this “thick skin” may also require anticipating sexism and racism and learning how to distance ourselves emotionally from attacks, both large and small. After all, K-12 institutions don’t exist in a vacuum; they are a reflection of the larger society in which we live.
When I read Education Week’s recent report about the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools—which found that one in four teachers and administrators have either been the victim of or witnessed sexual harassment—I went through a mental checklist of incidents from my time in the classroom. Some were examples of sexual harassment, like the young man who repeatedly made sexualized gestures toward me, and who only got better at hiding them after he was confronted.
But I also thought about times I had experienced sexism, both overt and less so: the use of sexist language to deride women teachers that I’ve heard from students and some peers alike; a suggestion from a female colleague that I act more maternal.
Discrimination and sexual harassment make our schools inhospitable for female teachers, and both are symptoms of a gender power imbalance in K-12 education. About 77 percent of all teachers are women, but the average student will see white men at the helm directing policies in schools. More than three-quarters of superintendents are male, according to a 2016 American Association of School Administrators survey, and almost 95 of those men are white.
These power imbalances hurt us as teachers, but they also instruct our students. A female student will hear teachers (still) privileging male voices in the classroom by calling on boys more and by allowing boys to talk over girls. She’ll hear sexist language and may experience sexual assault as a tool of domination. If she does experience verbal or physical violence, it’s unclear what support she’ll receive as schools in the US are not even required to track incidents of sexual violence.
Moving Toward Action
How can we change this culture that harms and disadvantages girls and female educators? To my deep-voiced, white, straight male colleagues who have “leadership potential” written all over them: I know that many of you are genuinely caring individuals who are good at your jobs. But know that you may be granted more opportunities and may have an easier time immediately in the classroom by virtue of the fact that you’re white dudes.
You command an automatic respect. Luckily, you can use this to your advantage in helping to make schools more equitable spaces. If you’re looking to make a difference in your community, here are some places to start:
1. Read widely. If you’ve made it this far without feeling an impending sense of #NotAllMen anger or disbelief, then chances are you have a basic understanding of gender and misogyny. Now, stretch yourself further.
As sociologist Michael Armato writes in the article “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” published in the journal Women’s Studies, “It is important that we remain vigilant in keeping ourselves educated in how privilege and oppression operate, seeking out information—from friends/loved ones, activists, books, articles, colleagues, websites, and other sources—that cultivates our awareness of the current realities of inequalities in the world.”
Follow feminists on Twitter—for instance, read Kimberlé Crenshaw to educate yourself about intersectionality and R.W. Connell to learn about hegemonic masculinity. Follow hashtags like #MeToo and #everydaysexism—and bear in mind the possibility that, even with all of your good intentions, you too are capable of perpetuating sexism.
Further reading from men who have worked to confront their own privilege and bias:
- “The Privilege of Teaching About Privilege,” published in the journal Sociological Perspectives, by Michael Messner
- “White Guy Habitus in the Classroom: Challenging the Reproduction of Privilege,” published in the journal Men and Masculinities, by Michael Messner
- “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Men’s Enlightened Sexism and Hegemonic Masculinity in Academia,” by Armato
- “The Misogynist Within,” published in The Nation, by Kai Wright
2. Notice sexism at work and name it. Overt sexism is easy to recognize and point out: It’s the demeaning comment, the intimidation, and the inappropriate touching. I’m suggesting that you also notice the smaller transgressions: The well-liked male colleague who gets credit for rephrasing an idea that a female colleague shared earlier; the colleague who only addresses men in the room; the guy who offers unsolicited advice to a woman who has similar expertise and gets upset when he’s shut down. Be the guy who pays attention and who isn’t afraid to name the problematic behavior.
Then do an inventory of your school to assess how well it’s doing in terms of power balances. Who are the leaders and decision makers at your school? Who is encouraged to apply for those positions? At your next faculty meeting or in your next lesson that you’re co-teaching with a female colleague, see who dominates discursive spaces. Who is doing most of the talking? Who is listening? Who seems to be commanding the most attention and why? What messages about power are you conveying to students and peers?
3. Lean out, just a bit. Wishing that inequalities would go away is easy. Being an ally is very different and much more challenging when it threatens your own privilege or status.
It’s easy to take up that leadership opportunity that wasn’t extended to others who are similarly qualified. It’s easy to assume that ease with parents and classroom management has nothing to do with race or gender, and everything to do with your expertise in building interpersonal relationships. It’s easy to be a bystander and a true believer in meritocracy.
What can you do? Start by talking up your female colleagues whose work you admire in front of administrators, students, and on platforms like Twitter. Encourage others to apply for leadership positions, and if you’re tapped for an opportunity for advancement or special recognition, consider suggesting additional names that might have been missed.
4. Don’t look for praise. You’ve educated yourself on gender and power structures. You now shut down sexist comments, amplify the voices of your peers, and consciously reflect on your own privileges.
Know, though, that this doesn’t make you the protector of women or a hero. It means that you’re being a decent human who doesn’t want to be complicit in the reproduction of inequalities. And being a decent human is, at least, a good place to start.