Teaching Opinion

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

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 07, 2013 10 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on the challenges facing male teachers)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” was:

What are the unique challenges facing male teachers? Do they have it easier, harder, or the same as women educators?

I, for one, have thought about this issue for years. I’m sure being a male teacher provides me with certain advantages in the classroom -- one being an easier ability to more easily use, for lack of better phrase, classroom appropriate “trash talk” or “locker-room talk,” to help build relationships with boys. On the other hand, so many of my students have had negative relationships (or none) with their fathers that they understandably carry that “baggage” into their perception of me -- that can create quite a steep hill to climb while, at the same time, provide an important role-modeling responsibility for me. In addition, this same student history makes me much more aware of the potential problems of encroaching upon students’ physical “personal space.”

Today’s post features a guest response from educator Ray Salazar who, in addition to sharing his personal experiences and thoughts, interviewed other teachers, too.

I’ll be publishing the final post in this series in a few days. It will include responses from two other teachers, as well as contributions from readers. There is still time to send your comments in!

Response From Ray Salazar

Ray Salazar is a National Board Certified teacher who works in the Chicago Public Schools. Ray writes about education and Latino issues on the award-winning White Rhino blog and you can follow him on Twitter at @whiterhinoray.

Do male teachers have it easier than female teachers?

The easy answer to this is, “It depends.” Despite the efforts by many colleges and organizations to standardize teacher preparation so that new teachers can succeed in almost any context, we still have to wonder how gender influences a teacher’s struggles and successes..

Gender affects teacher-student relationships--no doubt. But what advantages and challenges do male teachers have that, perhaps, female teachers don’t?

Not Easier, But Different

Second-year English teacher, Carolina Gonzalez, who works with juniors at a Southwest side Chicago public high school, noted on a few occasions during her first year that some struggles would not be happening if she were a male teacher. Gonzalez doesn’t say that male teachers have it easier--but it is different. She shares this after much reflection about herself, her students, and her role in this Latino community. She explains how, “Teaching forces us to understand other people’s experiences and validate them. It helps us reflect on why we made certain decisions in our lives and why other people made others,” she adds.

She highlights how some struggles are inherent to female teachers. “It’s rare for a male teacher to have conversations with students about what it is that he wears, what his body looks like, what his hair looks like. And those are things that I heard lot of students talk about last year.” Gonzalez concludes, “I was being evaluated [by students] on my physical appearance as opposed to what I did in the classroom.” Even though her priority was to have students discuss social issues, writing, and literature, she says that many of the conversations that surrounded her were about her physical appearance.

And the comments weren’t always kind. “Our bodies are used against us,” Gonzalez admittedly adds. “A male teacher and female teacher can say that same exact thing to redirect a student who is disrupting the class. But when it’s a female teacher, the student doesn’t think, ‘She just wants me to stop disturbing other people.’ It’s because we’re a bitch. We must be PMSing. We must be on our period. I’ve even heard, ‘She needs a man in her life.’ ”

Gonzalez admits that these comments are more hurtful when they come from female students. “It’s those hissing comments under their breath about how my legs look that day. I know if I were a male, I would not have put up with that.”

I tell her the story of my class of seventeen to nineteen-year-old females during my second year of teaching at an alternative high school on the city’s Southwest side. About twenty students--all female--sat around the room in a horseshoe, staring at me, the nervous twenty-three year old in a shirt and tie. They would giggle while I talked, whisper to each other, look at me, turn to each other, nod, and giggle. This continued for months until one day we hit a high point when, after an eruption of laughter, one student said something about me giving all of them a lap dance. Despite my professional attire, they wanted me wearing, or barely wearing, something else.

“Stop!” I remember shouting. “That’s not appropriate and we are not going to have conversations like that in class. It stops now.” They no longer giggled. Later I explained why those conversations were inappropriate.

Even though the students at that school nicknamed me “GQ” because I dressed up each day, my professional attire, in the beginning, could not protect me. And I made it a point to wear a tie almost every day until I was about thirty. Women, I recognize, have to think more carefully about what they wear for a much longer time.

Robby Ortiz, a 7th grade teacher at New Frontiers Charter School in San Antonio who became a teacher a few years ago says, “Men have an easier dress code to follow. And that’s true not just in education.” Ortiz makes sure that he dresses well: shirt, tie. He explains that if he dresses professionally, he acts professionally. He also wants his students, most of who come from working-class backgrounds, to see a “Chicano image of success.” Another image he challenges is the stereotype that teachers dress sloppily. “We can’t sell students on the idea of success if we look like slobs.”

Ortiz remembers the high-school male teachers who “stood out more because of their idiosyncrasies.” He recalls that “male teachers looked more like leaders of the classroom, not just instructors.” These male teachers, Ortiz adds, “were able to sell themselves, not just as teachers, but as someone good to follow.” The female teachers at Ortiz’s high school “presented themselves more like they were expected to be part of the profession,” he states. In Ortiz’s young perspective, he understood that the men in the classrooms chose to enter this profession and to lead.

Unlike many new teachers who struggle with classroom management, Ortiz describes how he had it easier than his peers. In one classroom near him was a female, another first-year teacher. The class management issues were apparent. In another class, another male first-year teacher also struggled. Ortiz recognizes, though, that his colleague, who is gay, faced another set of challenges in that traditional Latino community.

Ortiz, on the other hand, felt immediately respected, perhaps, because of his “big voice.” People regularly tell him that his voice scares students and that helps his classroom management. He makes certain to use this voice to help his students redefine their perspectives of success.

A Need For ‘Strong Male Teachers’

From the moment Ortiz decided to enter the teaching profession, he describes how “I got entirely positive comments from the professionals I knew who thought I would do well.” Although his race did not come up a lot, he does remember a few people telling him we need “strong male teachers.” All of these positive comments validated his decision to teach.

But not all males receive this same encouragement. When Dr. Chezare Warren, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, some former teachers discouraged him from becoming a teacher because they thought he was too smart. Not until a Summer Bridge experience in Houston did Warren feel that teaching is what he should do.

So after he earned his bachelor’s in elementary education with a focus on mathematics, a West side Chicago principal saw his resume and called him. She wanted him for a class where the students had forced out a number of teachers in only a few months. Warren recalls, “She told me that she knows I’m smart. But that’s not important right now. She needed a strong black male teacher.”

Warren recognizes that “Males may have a greater physical presence, a greater sense of discipline and order. Students,” he adds, “might be more inclined to respond differently to a black male.” But he adds, “It depends.”

After a couple of weeks with those challenging students, Warren was ready to quit. But he asked himself a question he says all educators must repeat to themselves: “How can I better serve this community?” He emphasizes that “teaching is selfless work. When it becomes about you--don’t do it anymore.”

Warren thought about how many other black men had walked out of his students’ lives and what it would mean if he did, too. Instead, he stayed. And he was intentional, like Ortiz, about how he dressed for work. “My students had a particular image of black man,” he says as he describes his professional attire. “I wanted to present another image of what a black man can accomplish.” While he was able to succeed with this class, he recognizes that his female colleagues were able to be more nurturing that he was. This can be hard for men, Warren acknowledges. “We don’t want to be seen as weak.”

Being ‘Especially Careful’

While he established good mentoring relationships with many male and female students, Warren speaks about how male teachers have to be especially careful with female students. Then I remember one uncomfortable incident I faced my first year as a teacher.

At the alternative high school where I first taught, students ranged from sixteen to nineteen years old. One late afternoon, a nineteen-year-old female student came into my classroom. I was alone in the top floor of the building. I was twenty-two years old. “Ray,” she began as she sat on the window sill by me. “Do you think it’s wrong for a student to date a teacher?”

“Yes, it is,” I said quickly and started walking out. “I have to go downstairs,” I said and went down two floors to be in the company of other colleagues. I later told them what happened. Telling them and making sure I was never alone with her or any student was the best thing for me to do. Thinking back, I never discussed this type of situation with anyone in my teacher-preparation program.

This represents the challenge that Warren argues schools of education should help students work through: “How do I reconcile what I thought I knew with what actually happens in my classroom?”

Warren explains how teacher-training programs need to “problem pose.” Schools of education need to “train aspiring teachers to reflect on their personhood.” They need to ask themselves questions such as “How do you interpret your professional identity?” Most importantly, they need to learn to persevere, Warren adds.

To help himself persevere, Robby Ortiz at New Frontiers visits his colleagues’ classrooms and other schools’ classrooms. He wants to continue expanding his perspective. “We get so hungry for victory,” Ortiz explains, “it becomes easy to lower our expectations and accept anything.”

Carolina Gonzalez also recognizes that high expectations and perseverance are essential combination for a teacher, male or female, to succeed. “And it’s OK when you’re not perfect,” Gonzalez advises others but admits, “I struggle with that. This is a profession that requires a lot of time and experience before you master it.”

Thanks to Ray for his contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including reader responses in my next post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be ending this year with Stenhouse.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for Part Two in a few days...

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.