Gender and Power in the American Classroom

By Eboo Patel - Inside Higher Ed

I am a diversity progressive who generally thinks that men have too much power. Because that is my worldview and because I am human, I am given to confirmation bias. In other words, I will look for cases that confirm my worldview – stories of men with too much power. But confirming your worldview is the opposite of what intellectuals ought to be doing. Instead, we should be constantly seeking new ways of thinking about familiar things, beginning with cases that challenge our worldviews.

Because issues of power are so central to the paradigm of diversity progressives, thinking about power in new ways is one of the things I’ll do from time to time with this blog. For this piece, I’d like to focus on women in elementary education.

For the first time in his eight years of formal education (pre-school included), my eldest son will have consistent contact with male teachers. My wife about danced a jig when she found out. To be sure, most of his day will still be under the expert hand of exceptional female educators, but at least his math and language arts lessons will be taught by men.

Why does this matter? Well, my very bright and talented son has a set of qualities – trouble sitting still, a propensity to fidget, a constant urge to touch things – we typically associate with boys. I have no idea if this is biological hard-wiring or gendered socialization, I just know that he is given to the occasional yawp and that this has led to more than one Straight Talk Express type parent-teacher conference.

As we asked around for advice, we discovered that there existed something of an informal list among parents (mostly moms) of teachers who seem to have difficulties to boys. The typical line – again, mostly from moms - goes something like this: Ms. So-and-so has a hard time handling boys.

That’s when the obvious hit me: perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the qualities generally associated with proper classroom etiquette (sitting still, following directions, helping others, pleasing authority) are qualities associated with the people who tend to run classrooms, 80 percent of whom are women.

When there is a dramatic overrepresentation of one gender in a particular sector we view it as a problem. We recognize, rightly I think, that even well-meaning people of one identity are likely to relate better to and create comfort for people who share their particular identity, therefore disadvantaging those of other identities.

If this is true for men in finance, tech and the Senate, might it also be the case for women in elementary education?

In fact, significant pieces of data seem to illustrate this. By eighth grade, nearly 50 percent of girls are getting a mix of A’s and B’s in school, while only 31 percent of boys are receiving such grades. That gap has lasting effects, including who goes on to higher education. In college, there are four young women to every three young men.

What could explain this? Well, just like men in finance, tech and the Senate, the particular qualities associated with women likely extend to the professional spaces they control and therefore likely affects those who inhabit those spaces. In the case of female teachers, these dynamics likely advantage female students.

It is interesting to me that when we discuss the overrepresentation of women in teaching we often connect that with issues of power, as in women lack power so they go into a low-pay, low-prestige profession. Men have power so they avoid becoming teachers.

Everybody knows that men in finance, tech and the Senate have power in spades. We almost never think of female third grade teachers this way. But why not?

Teachers have the power to create the dynamics of a classroom, and therefore the power to affect the educational experience of children, and consequently a not insignificant influence on their students’ life chances. As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt writes, “in an economy that rewards knowledge, the academic struggles of boys turn into economic struggles.” This is not nothing.

Is this an example of systemic, institutionalized power? Men may have more control at the level of superintendent or even school board, but isn’t the action in education in the classroom? Imagine how it feels to be a fidgety boy offering the occasional yawp in your third grade classroom and having very few people in positions of proximate authority who instinctively relate to you. Now multiply that by many many millions.  

My purpose in writing this post is not to criticize teachers or the education profession. Just about every teacher I’ve had and that my kids have had has been not just exceptional, but sacrificially so. Furthermore, there is clearly nothing malicious going on. It’s not like women think to themselves, “Since the best way for me to advantage girls and suppress boys is to become a teacher, I’ll major in education.”

Rather, my intention is to raise what I think are interesting and counterintuitive questions about identity and power.

Along those lines, here are my provisional conclusions from considering the case above. One, there are many kinds of power. Within the system of education, superintendents (largely men), have one kind – budgets. But teachers have another kind. It seems to me that, in conversations about identity and power, we should be especially sensitive to those many forms of power, and to the way that power is contextual.  

Finally, when talking about identity and power, defaulting to the frame of all the ways that men have power runs the risk of obscuring too many interesting things about the world.

A better approach: “Since power plays such a critical role in our society, let’s examine its various modes and see how it plays out in different settings, paying special attention to how it might be gendered, racialized, etc.”

September 12, 2018

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