How Primary Schools Create Gender

Primary schools are places in which gender is made to seem real.

Through the often uncritical bombardment of the fairy tales, myths and legends to which they are exposed, children see fragile princesses passively awaiting their princes, see regular girls rocket in worth as – like Cinderella – they are made to conform to a narrow definition of ‘beautiful’, and they see men whose sole purpose is to ‘get the girl’ at any cost. The women sweep floors, slave at looms or lie comatose. The men overpower, charm and rescue.

But they’re just traditional tales! Yes. They are traditional tales that fit a traditionally patriarchal society. The thinnest of lines exists between ‘passing on culture’ and ‘perpetuating and validating inequalities’. Too often, we do the latter.

Take a look out of the classroom window at play time. If everyone generally was operating with unconstrained free will, you wouldn’t be able to predict what was going on, let alone me, some distant blogger. But I can predict the boys will be taking up most of the space playing their sports, while the girls sit or stand around the edges. Not in all cases, of course, the ‘Tomboys’ might undergo a co-opted ‘gender reassignment’ to validate the fact that a girl likes sport. And you’ll have your ‘sensitive boys’ who don’t take part, as if to suggest that in normative terms, sensitivity is at odds with being boy.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach fairy tales and myths; I’m saying we should teach them, should enjoy their plots and timeless themes of trickery, magic, deception and retribution, and then we should also dismantle the living daylights out of the gender norms they perpetuate. We should expose the Gastons and the Prince Charmings for their two-dimensions, and we should have a word with Rapunzel, tell her to wrap it up in a scarf, grit her teeth and make her own way out of the castle.

Football – should we ban it? No. We need to dismantle it and rebuild it out of its pure elements, out of its real rules. The real rules of football include things like when to take a free kick, about the offside rule and about handball. The unreal rules, which are just as much a part of the playground premiership, include things like the unspoken acceptability of calling someone a pussy if they make a mistake, or get injured, or cry, or if you don’t like them. Be annoyed and passionate by all means, just don’t wrap that annoyance up in misogyny or the policing of gender.

Teachers are really used to saying the right thing, and of knowing the right thing to say. If I ask a teacher whether he or she is racist, for example, they aren’t going to say yes. Even the racist ones don’t say yes.

For gender, most teachers know the right thing to say. They sometimes say these things. They might police language or exclusionary play against girls, or they might intervene and reengineer friendship groups and seating plans.

How many teachers would feel comfortable supporting a child growing up between genders? How many would even know where to start? How many would be conscious enough to constantly second-guess themselves to check they are not perpetuating gendered language, or are encouraging gender conformity among their class.

Here is a good thought experiment. Imagine that a pupil in your class is transgender, but they haven’t been able to express this to you. How confident are you that the classroom culture that you engender does not cause this child discomfort, stress or misery?

I am no martyr here but I won’t undersell myself – I make sure that when we read heavily gendered stories, we always include gender norms as one of our axes of analysis, and I fairly unwaveringly encourage most children to be themselves when they seek confirmation for their choices. If my boys want to dance to You Spin Me Round, I am going to encourage them in that endeavour. If my girls are moaning about wanting to play football and they aren’t being allowed, they’ll have that pitch for themselves the next day.

But I still spend my time more so with male pupils than female pupils. I still find myself using the collective call of ‘come on boys’ when I have my basketball club. Did the boys need to be reminded of their biological sex in the middle of a tournament? Course not. It prevents girls from wanting to get involved though, that’s for sure, and it encourages boys to think of sport as a boy thing.

It is difficult to police the way we talk about gender not because of its smallness but because it is so vast and omnipresent as to appear like a lens. Not so much seen, as seen through. None of us were raised in a vacuum and all of us have some of our identity shaped through our own engagement with male/female and masculinities/femininities spectra, but to break the generational perpetuation we need to rethink the way we think, re-see the way we see and re-word the way we speak.

I began by saying that primary schools are places where gender is made real. A key dictum in sociology comes from Thomas, in the 1920s, ‘define a situation as real, then it will be real in its consequences’.

If we do not, as teachers, de-gender and re-gender our classrooms, then we hold some responsibility for the fallout.

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