His name was *Michael. He wore tights and pink sweaters. He preferred to play with the girls, although not exclusively, and for Carnival chose to be a sparkly butterfly. He often used the pronoun ‘she’ when speaking of himself.
Michael was five and most likely transgendered, but certainly gender fluid.
When lining up her students, Michael's teacher chose to do it by sex. But as a gender fluid child, Michael didn’t define himself by his sex. He gravitated towards the girl’s line. Each time his teacher told him, “Michael you're not a girl, you’re a boy. Stand in the boy’s line, please.” At recess, lunch, snack, PE, going to assembly- each and every time he lined up it was reinforced that his identity was 'wrong’.
Worse, each time it happened, I watched and cringed- but did nothing. I hid behind my fear of the confrontation that arises when one questions another teacher’s classroom practice.
I was a coward.
Photo: Lindsay Morris
As International Baccalaureate PYP teachers, it is easy to give lip-service that we provide open-minded, tolerant, accepting and equal learning experiences for the male, female, straight, gay, transgender, transsexual, lesbian, bisexual, gender fluid, and gender neutral students in our care.
But, come on- look at that list!!
Realistically, sometimes dropping the ball is going to happen. Sometimes, even confusion happens. For example, media images of transgender adults often focus on transsexuals, not those who live with the very early growing pains of grappling with transgender identity issues. It is time to become more mindful in our practice, to take control of the game. We need to own that ball.
You know how people ‘fit in’? Society has this way of reaffirming shared values through depictions within popular culture and rituals. Very early school rituals, such as the simple act of lining up, are symbolic and affirm in and out groups, the normal and abnormal. Rituals draw us together. Give us a sense of community and similarity. But they also work to reproduce dominant understandings of gender and identity (Pascoe 2007). That is to say, each time we as teachers encourage the reenactment of the categories of male/female, masculine/feminine, and straight/gay we actually create the categories in a self-actualizing cycle. We construct a space in which students may not ‘fit in’. We construct the norm.
DRAWING ON FEMINIST THEORY
Teacher researchers, such as myself, have observed masculinity often associated as an identity expressed through dominance and control. On the playground, I often observe ‘boyish play’ including the concepts of war, power, winning and losing. Inversely, I have also observed what other researchers have documented regarding femininity as constructed by deferring to male dominance (Pascoe 2007). I had convinced myself that these were simply the ‘normal’ roles that boys and girls engaged in. However, after research and reflection, I took the time to view my students' play through fresh-eyes and carefully observe and document their interactions on the playground. The data gathered from my observations and literary review indicated that socialization of gender begins very early in life (Orenstein 1994). Even very young girls begin defining their femininity in relation to boys (Sadker & Sadker 1994, Reay 2001). One study of a third grade class, examined four self-sorted groups of girls within the class. Researchers found that the 'nice girls' were labeled as such, as a derogatory term indicating, "...an absence of toughness and attitude." Each group of girls were labeled, such as the ‘tomboys”, sporty girls that played with the boys, as an indication of where they existed only in relationship to the males around them (Reay 2001). Let me state that again. The girls only held identity in relation to the boys around them.
And me? I have been contributing to the gender roles my students are developing by acknowledging them as ‘normal’.
Perhaps sensitized to this, in large part because of the feminist movement, popular culture and entertainment media has begun to construct a paradigm of empowered women characters who act as role models for young girls. However, director Joss Whedon, who has a history of writing strong women characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Avengers is still confronted by the dominant gender narrative when answering interviewers questions that stem from their inability to coalesce the concepts of smart, sexy, independent and feminine within one female body.
Start video at 2:00 for Joss Whedon's speech... AHmazing.
Decades ago, Germaine Greer wrote that women would be free when they have a positive definition of female sexuality (Wolf 2002). Despite feminist theorists such as Greer, Wolf, and Steinem, as well as various supporting male feminist such as Whedon’s, best efforts, independent women are still considered as masculine ball-busters, sexy- but no one to take home to your mother. In an extreme case of this phenomena, slut shaming and the suicides of Amanda Todd, Retaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott, and Cherice Morales are clear indicators that even very young women who dodge dominant gender roles are considered unworthy, impure, and immoral (Theriault 2013). "It seems society still demands that women spend their time with their eyes lowered to their own bodies obsessed with looks, weight and age ... only raised when checking their reflections in the eyes of men” (Wolf 2002).
Whether we like it or not, this is part of our cultural gender narrative.
And this gender narrative is carried into the classroom each and everyday by teachers such as myself.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
“If a school system tried to coerce any other group of individuals to become people they are not, to regard an inner core of their identities as illegitimate, and prevent them from expressing their identities freely, particularly from a very young age, it would be characterized as barbaric. ... The [resulting] internalization of self-hatred, guilt, self-doubt and low self-esteem in childhood affects transgender people throughout their lives. Any education system, or indeed society, which allows this state of affairs to continue is neither fully inclusive nor fully humane.” (Kennedy & Hellen 2010)
Using what we have learned from feminist theory, teachers can use the postmodernist approach to queer theory to understand how teaching practices frame the ways in which bodies, desires, sexualities and identities are constructed (Pascoe 2007). By engaging in mindful practice teachers can learn to move beyond categories and focus on a more fluid understanding of identity.
However, in order to do this, teachers need to harness courage in order to question the dominant cultural narrative. Beyond changing our own teaching behaviors, we need to be aware of the gender bias imbedded in many educational materials and texts and need to take steps to combat it (Jones, Evans, Byrd & Campbell 2000). Curriculum researchers have established the main attributes that need to be considered when trying to establish a gender-equitable curriculum. Gender-fair materials need to; acknowledge and affirm variation, be inclusive, accurate, representative, and integrated. They need to weave together the experiences, needs, and interests of all categories of gender (Klein 1985, Bailey 1992).
"We need to look at the stories we are telling our students and children. Far too many of our classroom examples, storybooks, and texts describe a world in which boys and men are bright, curious, brave, inventive, and powerful, but girls and women are silent, passive, and invisible" (McCormick 1995). Replace 'boys' or 'girls' with: transgender, transsexual, gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, gender fluid, and gender neutral, and the statement still rings true. We need to review the materials in our classroom to accurately represent the greater learning community. To begin that process, some recommended books for young adults that deal with gender identity can be found here and resources for Character Education can be found here .
And what if those books and resources do not exist, just the way we want them?
Well, we need tocreate them.
At the MYP and DP levels, establishing communities and clubs at schools such as the Gay Straight Alliance, raises awareness, opens dialogue and enables a normative view of identity in all forms. The GSA website provides a comprehensive hub of research based learning activities to promote and accelerate an open-minded, tolerant and equal learning community. Other networks and websites such as TransKids help teachers provide learning experiences for lesser known or more overlooked gender identities. Additional resources for teaching gender in education can be found here.
PARENTS: WHERE DO WE STAND?
When parents choose an IB school they buy into an ethos that is underpinned by the Learner Profile. Personally, I work each and every day to embody the attitudes and aptitudes of the Learner Profile, because I truly believe that making the world a better place starts with me. Parents can help teachers and the learning community by supporting networks likes the GSA, as well as openly supporting LGB and transgender teachers and students. Many schools slop the vocabulary identified with homophobia into bullying and delineate it to the periphery of bad kids who pick on girlie boys. Parents need to advocate for; equality in the vernacular of the school, equal representation in the materials provided within classrooms, networks of support for all learners, and comprehensive anti-bullying campaigns.
Most importantly parents need to become involved in (or create) events that promote equality. How about blog about it, Tweet it, Facebook post it? To help get you started, resources for the Learner Profile can be found here.
Through the process of writing this blog post, I found that in my own practice I lacked mindful awareness of how my interactions and choices transferred to my students' understanding and construction of their own identities. Despite being a member of my school’s GSA, despite being very open-minded and liberal in my politics, I still was a coward when it counted the most for Michael.
You know, I bet Michael would have done well at a place like the 'Nonconforming Camp for Boys', surrounded by other gender-bending boys like him. But for me, I don’t want my students to be forced to find a sequestered camp to feel accepted and safe.
That place should start with me.
I must be a role model for my students, not just the Hollywood constructs. I must be the complex, creative, empowered, smart, open-minded, tolerant and mindful practitioner who loves each and every one of them for who they are. I must acknowledge and support them in their learning journey. I must be their advocate, to shout for them when they have no voice, to provide resources and materials in my classroom that represent them, no matter their gender or orientation. I have the responsibility to stand up to other teachers that may not be practicing mindfully, despite the fact it may make my life a bit uncomfortable. I have that burden.
Because doing the right thing isn’t always easy- but no one ever said it was.
Resources & Recommended Reading:
Bailey, S. (1992) How Schools Shortchange Girls: The AAUW Report. New York, NY: Marlowe & Company.
Jones, K., Evans, C., Byrd, R., Campbell, K. (2000) Gender equity training and teaching behavior. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 27 (3), 173-178.
Kennedy, N. & Hellen, M. (2010) Transgender children: more than a theoretical challenge. Graduate Journal of Social Science December, VOL 7 Issue 2
Klein, S. (1985) Handbook for Achieving Sex Equity Through Education. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Marshall, C.S. & Reihartz, J. (1997) Gender issues in the classroom. Clearinghouse, 70 (6), 333-338.
McCormick, P. (1995) Are girls taught to fail? U.S. Catholic, 60, (2), 38-42.
Mulrine, A. (2001) Are Boys the Weaker Sex? U.S. News & World Report, 131 (4), 40-48.
O'Neill, T. (2000) Boys' problems don't matter. Report/ Newsmagazine (National Edition), 27 (15), 54-56.
Orenstein, P. (1994) Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Reay, D. (2001) 'Spice girls', 'Nice Girls', 'Girlies', and 'Tomboys"; gender discourses. Girls' cultures and femininities in the primary classroom. Gender and Education, 13 (2), 153-167.
Pascoe, C. J (2007) Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High-school. University of California Press, CA.
Sadker, D., Sadker, M. (1994) Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls. Toronto, ON: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Wolf, N. (2002) The Beauty Myth. HarperCollins INC. New York.