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The Great Divide: Gender And The Classroom

Call it gender identity. Call it emotional labor. Call it a million things because it's not as simple as just teaching.

October 9, 2019

July Westhale
Teacher's Pet

he day one of my particularly flinty third grade students jumped into my arms was also the day I questioned whether or not I needed to talk to Child Protective Services on her behalf.

Let me back up.

I’m a contractor; my work is not linear, not 9–5, not steady or protected or ever really fair. I feel lucky that, after nearly a decade of freelancing, I seem to finally have gotten the balance right, but I know it will change in a mere matter of months, and for the most part, I’m okay with that. I trade stability for loving my work, for flexibility, for knowing that I can move things around if I need to.

None of which has anything to do with working with children, except in the sense that right now, I’m working in an after school Creative Writing program with young kids, once a week. I’ve never worked with children before, save babysitting the kid next door when I was growing up. He’d asked if he could kiss me. When I said no, he’d bitten a chunk out of my shin. I was getting paid $2.25/hour. This was rural California, 1998.

There are certain ways I’m a natural at working with kids: I’m a person who likes to jump around, make up songs, do voices for stuffed animals. I’m permissive and kind. I was an extremely traumatized kid who went through the system, and that gives me a certain cache around other traumatized kids — we can circle around each other. They know I’m safe. I am also okay — an adult who went through the system and is alright. And for my part, I get to love them. I get to unsnap the ordinary boundaries I have with students, and be jumped on, confided in, have my hair played with.

There are other ways in which I get it terribly wrong.

My other steady teaching gig, you see, is teaching adults. My college students are not allowed to call me by my first name. We hug only in emergencies, or at the ending of a semester-long course. We are all allowed to curse, they don’t have to ask my permission for anything, and I maintain a caring, yet boundaried dynamic with them. I am a resource for them. I have the capacity for listening, holding space, offering care. I also have to do the balancing act of making sure that they know that, until they are no longer my student, we are not friends.

My male colleagues do not have to do this dance.

Last Spring, I watched a male professor in my department, dearly beloved (by myself included), not only be addressed by his first name, but also share stories about his new son, his wedding, the time he lost his father.

Even though I’m genderqueer, those who don’t think much about queerness, or femmeness or the intersection of the two would think my high-femininity means that I’m a lady. As such, I can share personal (appropriate) stories, my first name — the fact that I’m a person who has a life outside the classroom — with my elementary students, but not my college kids.

Even though Junot Diaz hasn’t exactly been the bastion of Fantastic Male Behavior, something he said once at a reading really stuck in my craw: the worst female writers, he’d said, still write infinitely better male characters than the best male writers do of female characters.

Why? Because we are socialized to believe that men are valuable. It’s more of a stretch to get the reader to believe that women are.

In her illuminating and powerful book Three Women, Lisa Toddeo opens with this:

“It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian moments of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us.”

This posits the idea that gender isn’t simply a social construction (it is), but also that it lives alongside the ancestral teachings and lineages of those who came before us. In Three Women, femininity is posited as a dangerous and sharp thing, something that men feel the need to squash, and other women feel threatened by.

Not much, as it turns out, is different in the teaching of people. My male colleagues do not need to work to create a space in which their students respect and have deference for them; they can toe the line of professionalism, dip into the world of studenthood, be one among them, and still have their word taken seriously.

“You’ve never had the hots for one of your students?” A male poet and fellow teacher once asked me. The question infuriated me, not only because crossing the student-teacher boundary is a hard no for me, but also because the asking of it was so permissive. Every time I saw him after that, especially in his classes, I’d note the way he sat, the way he leaned or didn’t lean close. What I noticed most of all was his flagrant use of personhood, his cavalier regard for teaching that, had I’d adopted it, would be a damnable offense.

With children, I do not have to create the line of respect and deference; children are automatically pre-dispositioned to treat adults as an other. What’s better is that the very youngest among the children don’t have a fully realized understanding of gender, and so it doesn’t matter whether or not the person in the front of the room is male or female. In elementary schools, it’s also more common to see female-assigned-at-birth folks in charge, anyway.

Let’s unpack that a little, even though I recognize that it’s a whole other subject worth its dive: even though (or perhaps because of this) we view teachers as being holistically responsible for the emotional, intellectual, & civic engagement of our entire populace, we also understand that teaching involves care-taking. Social Emotional Learning—a concept which existed as a pillar of education even before it became a pedagogical modality—offers itself as a way to condition young people to be prepared and engaged members of society:

“People with strong social-emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially. From effective problem-solving to self-discipline, from impulse control to emotion management and more, SEL provides a foundation for positive, long-term effects on kids, adults, and communities. Children thrive. Schools win. Workplaces benefit. Society strengthens. All due to social-emotional learning.”

While SEL isn’t, by itself, any sort of solution to the multifaceted and complex issue of public education in this country, the verbiage that surrounds it (and many other professional development requirements for educators) shows that teaching relies heavily on a considerable amount of emotional labor on the part of the educators themselves.

Therefore, as we annex many careers that fall in line with emotional work, it is feminized labor. This history of this delegation is a many-angled one: women as school teachers serving as a proxy mothers for children, mothers teaching because the hours accommodate child-rearing, and teaching being a “non-threatening” job for women entering the workforce in mid-century America.

It turns out that I, too, am also guilty of not knowing how to bounce back fast enough. The day following the conversation around mandated reporting in my after school program, I was teaching my college kids about ethics. (I teach Critical Thinking through the lens of English/Humanities. It’s a great time). There was an incident in the classroom; a student I care very much about was having a hard time. The room changed, and I had to navigate us all back safely to shore. I can’t share details — I have to protect my students — but someone was upset in public, and we were all asked to navigate it together, as a classroom community.

These kinds of negotiations have happened quite frequently in my years of teaching adults. After all, school is only a fraction of life, and not a very large or looming fraction. I am solicitous of my students, allowing them to acknowledge and normalize their lives. I know what they want me to know. I check in on them, and hold space. I also, through experience, my own therapy, and sheer determination, know how to care for myself. You have to, or teaching wouldn’t be sustainable for most.

However, the flopping back and forth between teaching children and teaching adults — the differing boundaries, the way young children don’t seem to always see gender, the way my youngest and most scared kids dive-bomb onto my body, my lap, hold my hand, the way my older students and I stand apart, call one another by the chosen ways we’d like to be addressed, the holding one another to accountable standards, the boundaries —

to go so quickly from one world to another blew me the hell out. Call it the body, where to place it in time according to a schedule of what ends up being work. Call it gender identity. Call it emotional labor. Call it a million things because it’s not as simple as just teaching.

I took the weekend and went to the ocean, which is where I always go when I feel blown out and overwhelmed and unsure of what to do with myself. The wind and the sea, my dogs running their tireless donuts on the shore, seafood that tastes like salt and brine, sleep as dark as the starless nights of Oakland. I often wonder if you have to be of a marginalized identity in order to understand the truly profound nature of nuance, the way the emotional axis of the world tilts and turns towards the sun and away from it, not on any kind of recognizable timeline, but according to gravitational pull all the same.

I often wonder if a traumatized queer kid who went through the system is the best person to be dispensing wisdom, or whatever it is I do in the classroom most days of the week.

Likely not. But I’ll keep trying.

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