Experiences of Jonathan Cairney , a teacher of a 20 years having taught History, English and Maths in London and Scotland!
I have been a secondary teacher for almost twenty years. For the majority of this time, due to time taken out for other commitments, I have not taken permanent posts, preferring mostly to do long and short term supply and an extensive amount of one to one tutoring. However, this quite unique teaching experience (both in London and Scotland) has given me many opportunities to see classes in many different schools ‘in the raw’: without the steadying influence or more knowledgeable eye of a familiar teacher (or teachers). What I almost always observe is that in a mixed setting the boys will often set out to dominate and that the girls will be less likely to get involved as a result. When I have attempted to address that imbalance it is often met with consternation from the boys and self-conscious resignation from the girls. This is a real problem for education in my view and it is not one for which the blame can easily be laid. In fact, not only does this hamper the social confidence and articulative development of the girls but in the long term does no good for the boys either.
Why should this be so? The main reason could be that our mixed classrooms simply mirror our society. Up until quite recently the traditional roles have always been fixed: the boys are taught to be assertive, vocal and successful, the girls are expected to be quieter, more docile, the audience members. But now, as society begins to progress, has the classroom kept pace?
In the last 15 years in Scotland, academic achievement in Stem subjects has finally begun to rise for girls (link1), especially in Maths, yet the gender stereotyping and unconscious bias in schools I have worked in still endure. Perhaps we can find the answer with parents and in Early years and Primary where masculine behaviour in boys is often encouraged: shows of strength characterized by flexing muscles or roaring around the playground. Girls at this age however are still encouraged to sit still, be passive or, even worse, look pretty. T shirts in high street shops display contrasting messages: King of the world! for the boys, Be kind, for the girls. Often the boys in year 7 or 1st year, when they arrive at secondary school, are labelled the ‘worst I’ve seen’ by shocked teachers because of this unfortunate stereotypical foundation.
This is not a good situation for boys to be in either. It is no coincidence that the highest rates of suicide in the UK are amongst young men. The pressure many of them feel to be ‘hard’ or ‘a man’, is so unnecessary and so damaging. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes this masculinity as a ‘cage, and we put boys inside this cage’ (link 2) giving them a fragile ego. Certain recent British and American political leaders spring to mind here. At the same time, she argues, this makes it even worse for girls who have to cater for these egos, putting themselves second and making themselves ‘smaller’. I have also taught (albeit briefly) in a boys and in a girls school. My (more limited) experience here gave me the impression that, although there is more scope for freedom from the usual constraints, it is more of a temporary ‘haven’ for pupils rather than a long-term solution to the wider issue.
So what can teachers (and schools) in the secondary sector do? As with so many other social issues, a large responsibility can fall upon the classroom teacher: how far can, or should they attempt to deflect or challenge sexist stereotyping or any other particular societal trajectory? This is a very difficult question and there are strong feelings in both camps. Some, such as Professor Gert Biesta of Edinburgh University believe that teaching is ‘not a moral profession. An ethical teacher is not a good teacher’(link 3). Biesta believes that the teacher’s responsibility is primarily to equip and give information to the pupil so they will make their own minds up about issues whereas others such as Stirling University’s Dr.Joe Smith believe that it is the moral duty of a teacher, with much more experience of the outside world, to input that experience where it is deemed beneficial.
Both arguments are valid but from my experience the key factor is the teacher’s ability to neither lead a class nor always stay a step removed. The best teachers will always try to subtly provide an opinion-forming platform for pupils to stand on while at the same time not giving them the sense that this is being done for them.This is when they can become independent thinkers and, in the case of gender norms, can help them (and future generations) move away from the ‘settled roles’ of both girls and boys in the classroom.