If you ask most teachers, they would surely tell you that they do not intend to favor one sex over the other. Yet research shows that they often wind up silencing girls in a different way. In this post, a former state teacher of the year explains how and why it happens — and how she has inadvertently played a role in this, too.
She is Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, a 14-year veteran educator and the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, who looks at the national #MeToo debate and how gender politics plays out in schools — and what schools need to do to become places that “practice democracy” and end unequal adult behavior toward girls and boys.
Lamb-Sinclair is also founder and chief executive of Curio Learning, an online space and visual organizer for teachers to get more creative through discovery, organization and collaboration with other innovative teachers from around the world. She has been a contributing writer to the Atlantic, The Washington Post, Education Week and the Education Post website, among others. Lamb-Sinclair is a National Board Certified teacher, dedicated to innovation and creativity in schools and classrooms and within the teaching profession. Find her @AshleyLambS on Twitter.
By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair
I feel a certain patriotic pride when I hear the phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, “the Great American Experiment.” Inherent in this idea is that our country and its mission is ever evolving — that from the beginning, the social, political and cultural fabric that built us was meant to shift and change over time. The word experiment connotes best guesses, curiosity and even potential failure. But even the most inexperienced of scientists know that valid experiments require a control, a contrast, a foundation with which to measure any change, in order to arrive at a conclusion that warrants belief.
The foundations of our society — the control of this great experiment — are our institutions. We rely on them to provide some semblance of continuity when inevitable evolution takes place. So given the events of the last few weeks pertaining to one of our most honorable institutions, it is no surprise that so many have taken to the streets, some even finding themselves behind bars as a result, to protest the Brett M. Kavanaugh nomination and ultimate confirmation to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is titled as such for a reason: meaning that it is the ultimate, the last stop, the final voice in justice when the fabric of this great experiment unravels in the most crucial of places — from the mundane to the profound.
Yet if the Supreme Court is the American institution that represents the final say, public education must be the institution that represents our foundation. In fact, in her poignant book, “Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School,” Carla Shalaby describes school as “a place to practice freedom,” ultimately arguing that public schools are incubators for democratic freedom — or not.
It is hard as an educator to watch the Kavanaugh events unfold while understanding innately that the obvious and more nuanced facets of the issues facing our country at this moment begin and develop in classrooms.
I’ve felt this truth as both a parent and an educator. Just this past summer, while picking up my 5-year-old from preschool, she came running up to me as soon as I arrived, excited to share that on this particular day, she received two stickers on her sticker chart, rather than the usual one. Then, a young teaching assistant who couldn’t have been older than 20, said to her in encouragement, “Yes, you have been so good today. You were so quiet and did exactly as you were told.”
I felt such a jolt of anger rush through me at that moment, and later I realized that I was so angry because my daughter was openly being praised for her silence and compliance. It is the same anger that at this moment drives protesters into the streets — the deep understanding that from a young age, women are praised for being silent, while Christine Blasey Ford and other sexual assault victims simultaneously are criticized for not speaking up.
I don’t blame this young teacher. She was not a trained educator, but simply a young person with a part-time afternoon job supporting preschool teachers as they roll off of their various shifts. Yet I have found myself coming back to this moment over and over again in my mind. She was not a trained educator, but I am. And I had to recognize right then, that whether I liked it or not — whether I had openly agreed to it or not — I had also taken part in the silencing of young girls.
As much as it is encouraging to consider how gender, sexuality and the roles of girls and women are progressing culturally (even given current circumstances), it is also important to recognize the continuing role that schools play in the silencing of girls.
Firing men who sexually harass women and imprisoning men who sexually assault women may be an important first step in the technical change that should occur to create gender equality in the United States, but to create more adaptive or transformative change, it is important to look to our institutions as the key components in creating that shift.
Research over several decades has indicated that teachers provide an uneven distribution of time to male students — asking more questions, providing more feedback to them and allowing more interruptions or talking out of turn from them.
Meanwhile, girls are called on less frequently and therefore volunteer or raise their hands less often. Teachers spend nearly two-thirds more time interacting with boys than with girls, and they allow boys to interrupt girls, rather than vice versa. They provide more wait time to boys and prompting for critical thinking and deeper answers, while praising girls for being quiet or neat.
Boys are given more opportunities to demonstrate learning in front of the class, and teachers often direct their gaze toward boys in the room over girls when seeking answers to questions. For African American girls and other girls of color, the silencing is more direct. African American girls are six times more likely to be punished in school than their white counterparts, particularly for offenses deemed “disobedient” or “defiant.”
These biased behaviors and structures in schools result in children who grow up accepting gender inequities as the norm. In a study of nearly 20,000 young people, only 8 percent of girls and 4 percent of boys preferred female political leaders, indicating that young people are socialized to believe men are better leaders than women. And as these children grow up and enter the workplace, this type of thinking follows them.
Women are perceived to talk more than men, even though the opposite is true. When women are evaluated as being “forceful” or “assertive,” their perceived competence drops around 35 percent and their worth by $15,000. When women speak up, interrupt, offer advice or provide solutions, their likability drops, thereby decreasing opportunities that more “likable” and equally successful men may receive. And it doesn’t stop in the workplace. Women are silenced and interrupted more often than men in courtrooms and doctor’s offices just to name a few. These perceptions, beliefs and biases often begin and continue through schools.
Self-expression from young girls is silenced in ways that go beyond verbal. A couple of years ago, I had a young female student come into my classroom during my planning period, distraught because she felt she was being harassed by male faculty members through the enforcement of the dress code, which focused mostly on female attire and required covered shoulders and skirts that skimmed the knees.
She said that each day she entered the school building, male members of the staff consistently looked her up and down, pointing out parts of her body that were exposed and ought not to be, according to the policy. I listened intently as her voice escalated and her frustration rose, but I couldn’t really help her, just as she couldn’t really do anything about it herself. Through the school policy, she had little rights to argue her cause; yet she faced what she felt was harassment all day long without any path to escape or resolve it. And as an educator in the building, each time the dress code discussion came up in faculty meetings and I listened quietly while disagreeing with the policies, I became party to that harassment.
Dress code controversy has been widely debated, but the reality is that it affects young girls in a way that it does not affect boys and becomes another way in which girls can come to feel helpless in the school system. When these girls grow up, do they simply learn to accept silence and helplessness as a matter of fact? Although it comes up as a criticism of the relevance of the incident between Kavanaugh and Ford given that it took place decades ago, it should not be lost that the alleged attack and context surrounding it took place when they were in high school, where many other young Americans currently engage in similar behaviors.
The #MeToo movement is nothing new.
Louisa May Alcott wrote “Work: A Story of Experience” about working as a domestic servant at the age of 18 and the injustice she suffered after denying her employer’s many sexual advances.
Carmita Wood filed a claim for unemployment benefits after resigning her job at Cornell University because of forceful touching by her supervisor, and she went on to co-found the group Working Women United.
Recy Taylor was kidnapped and raped by a group of white men and spent years fighting for justice, testifying against them in the Jim Crow South, at the threat of death by her perpetrators.
In fact, the #MeToo movement was actually created a decade ago, particularly for women of color, by an activist named Tarana Burke to unify those victimized by sexual violence. So although it is significant and positive that the public discourse around sexual harassment and violence is finally getting its due, the problem has persisted for centuries, and the root cause cannot be easily mended by firing a handful of offenders, however publicly those firings may occur.
Clearly, the firings and indictments of offenders over the past year was not enough to prevent what has occurred surrounding the fate of our Supreme Court over the last few weeks. If the silencing of women and girls has existed all along, then the solution must come from restructuring institutional policies and rethinking how gender bias influences cultural norms and behavior within those institutions. The education system — as one of the first public institutions Americans encounter as children — should be the starting line.
It’s also important to note that the silencing of women and girls not only harms girls, but boys as well. When the boys in my daughter’s preschool class see her and the other girls rewarded for being quiet, they come to expect silence from girls, leading to gender bias not only in schools, but in the workplace, family and beyond. When I and other educators let boys monopolize classroom discussions or ask deeper questions of them or allow them to interrupt the girls in the room, I become complicit in the tacit codes of gender interactions — that the words and thoughts of boys are more important than the words and thoughts of girls — and those boys grow up believing this to be true. So later, when a girl tells one of these boys “no,” he might disregard her demand because he has come to believe that his wants and needs matter more than hers. I do not want this future for my daughters or my former students or any other child looking hopefully to the future we’re struggling to create now.
I only hope that in this moment of “the Great American Experiment,” even as Brett Kavanaugh rises to the highest court in the land, that the foundation of freedom and democracy — our public schools — shifts toward a transformative change where those who are silenced are instead empowered to make the changes that really matter.