Teaching Profession Opinion

The Glass Ceiling in Education

By Nancy Flanagan — July 31, 2016 3 min read
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You’ve probably seen it--the cartoon with three children’s heads. There’s a speech bubble over all three kids, saying “I could be President!” Underneath the first--a white boy--the caption reads: Since 1789. Under the second, a black boy, it says: Since 2008. And under the third, a girl, the text is: Since Tuesday.

This isn’t a political blog, by the way--it’s about education. You know, one of the limited number of fields where women are supposed to be welcomed and excel, like nursing or being someone’s uber-efficient administrative assistant. When folks think of a third grade teacher, their mental image is usually a sturdy woman in a denim skirt--with lots of pockets--and comfortable shoes.

Ask about the HS band director, however--and you’re probably picturing a harried man in an aging uniform with a stripe on his pant leg, megaphone in hand, directing 100 similarly attired teenagers on the football field. Things are changing--in the late 1970s, there were only seven women HS band directors in the state of Michigan, which has 500+ school districts--but in secondary and university music education, it was a man’s world for a century or more.

For all of us who have been discouraged from taking on education jobs that traditionally belonged to men, Tuesday night was a glass-shattering celebration, even for those who aren’t Hillary fans. My friend Pat Brumbaugh, who has an impressive resume’ as a music educator, wrote this:

When I was very young I was told that I couldn't go to college because I was a girl. I was told that I couldn't play the instrument I wanted to play because I was a girl. I couldn't go hunting or fishing with my Dad because I was a girl. I couldn't learn to fix things because I was a girl. I couldn't be a band director because I was a girl. I was told that I had to dress a certain way, act a certain way, walk a certain way & look a certain way (I never looked the way I was supposed to look). BUT I went to college, I learned to fix and build things, I gave up trying to look the way everyone wanted me to look and I became a band director. I taught at every educational level for 37 years. I succeeded because I was just that stubborn. And now, here I sit in my living room, 62 years old, watching Hillary Clinton (a woman who grew up in the same era that I did), accept the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United State of America. I understand her journey, her struggles and all of the battles that she has had to fight to get here tonight. I couldn't be more proud.

Oh, I get that, Pat. I get it. And so do many women who, despite talent, persistence and what you might call bravado, have found careers in education a tough row.

Right out of college, I applied for a middle school band job in the school district that I attended, K-12. My HS band director was on the hiring team. Now--I was a known quantity, the John Philip Sousa award winner as outstanding musician in the class of 1969, my former teacher’s ex-officio marching band assistant (meaning I wrote marching shows in my junior and senior years, running what felt like 100K copies for the drum line, using an old machine that required running each page through a chemical bath).

In the interview at my alma mater, the band director, the man I considered a mentor, said “We’d hire you for an elementary music job in a flash, but I don’t believe in lady band directors.” In my very next interview, in a tiny farming town in southwestern Michigan, the principal put his hands behind his head and propped his feet on his desk after asking me a few desultory questions. “We’re really looking for a man for this job,” he said, “but I just had to see the girl who thought she could handle my high school band.”

Good times.

I eventually got a (wonderful) job teaching instrumental music, and stayed there for a long time--but was always on the lookout for other women doing what I did and deftly handling the challenges, as well as the subtle sexism. Women who could be buddies, who would recognize the understated but always-present tension of being the only soprano in a roomful of basses and baritones.

Recently, on the Band Directors Group Facebook page, a young female director ask for feedback on this situation: the male festival adjudicator who judged her band at contest made a comment (directed to her students) that they should look at her more often when she was directing them--and that watching her more intently should be enjoyable, because she was easy on the eyes.

Should she say something? She was embarrassed that her students heard the comment; it made her seem less professional as a determined young teacher. There were hundreds of comments. Women mostly believed she should quietly say something in her evaluation of the judging. Men, conversely, thought it was a misguided compliment--and that challenging a veteran judge would be disrespectful to him!

Women are role models for each other in all fields, including those that are supposed to be open to females. We’ve got nobody else. It was downright heartening to see a woman my age who successfully made it all the way through a grueling presidential nomination, the ultimate glass ceiling in America, because she was just that stubborn--no matter what you think of her politics.

When I was named MI Teacher of the Year, I was asked to speak at my old HS--an example of success, from a blue-collar school district. I told the students and parents I spoke to my story of being turned down for a job there. You missed out on a good teacher, I told them. Because I was a girl. Don’t make the same mistake.

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.