Primary Classrooms, Gender and Feminism

My last post was about the experiences of male primary school teachers, and I made the argument that many men in schools need to do more reflection on the extent to which they benefit from patriarchy and the different gendered expectations placed on men and women. I say this not as someone on a higher plane of self-knowledge who has transcended these privileges – I simply recognise that some of my success has been accentuated, accelerated and made more visible because of me being a man.

In this post I want to focus a bit more on the classroom itself, and explore how it is that schools filled with (largely) well meaning educators, who would be horrified to be deemed sexist or anti-woman/girl can nonetheless churn out generation after generation of young people who cling on to notions of binary gender norms that shackle us into thinking that there is one proper way to be a proper man, a proper woman, a proper boy and a proper girl. And of course, for those individuals who do gender differently, by choice or necessity, they face further questions and policing about why they can’t/don’t/won’t match up to expectation – this is true of adults and children alike.

I hardly need to make the point that children arrive at Nursery having already absorbed an abundance of messages about boys and girls, and what constitutes each. Children come to school having been played with and interacted with differently from pretty much their moment of birth. A fascinating study looked at how adults interacted with a baby when they thought the baby was male or female, with the result being that boys were played with more actively and livelily. When celebrating the birth of a child, still the choices of greetings cards split by gender. Toy shops are still very often organised by the gender of their target audiences. Kids TV programmes and their corporate branding often align with supposed norms of ‘boy stuff’ and ‘girl stuff’ – the girls come in with their Angelina Ballerina backpacks on, but why aren’t the boys doing the same? Why shouldn’t they? More interestingly, why don’t they?

Uniform sets an immediate and clear message, a needless one, that boys and girls are different things. Does the uniform need to do this – if the purpose of a uniform is not to cement a gender divide, then why shouldn’t it be unisex? Often, the boys wear trousers, the girls wear skirts. The boys have nothing in their hair, the girls can have all sorts of bands and braids. I am largely ambivalent about the need or supposed benefits of school uniforms for academic reasons, but I certainly dislike the fact that they so often propose different uniforms based on the biological sex of the kid. For children who come to school questioning their relation with gender, or who – like more kids than many of us recognise – are uncomfortable in the biological sex that they have been assigned, gendered uniforms can represent something painful, embarrassing and insulting. If we, as adults were forced to wear the clothing of the ‘opposite’ (sic) sex, many of us would feel a deep sense of discomfort, because it just doesn’t feel right for us, yet for trans children, this is the position we put them in daily. Look at -Mermaids has guidance on how schools can best support children with gender dysphoria, and much of it passes as good practice more generally.

In my last post, I talked about staffing and how men are over represented at the top of school hierarchies and under represented at the bottom. So we have, in comparison to the already imbalanced gender split of primary staff, disproportionately high numbers of male primary school heads and senior leaders, and disproportionately low numbers of mid day assistants and teaching assistants. Kids are in no way blind to gender. When they see the man in a suit in his office or delivering speeches in assembly, and they see the woman mopping up the carrots and broccoli, this all goes into their tiny little heads. When a kid is sent to a male teacher for a telling off, and they are consoled if upset by female TAs and class teachers, again, this gently and slowly reinforces the idea that masculinity is about power, and femininity is about care and nurture. This is not a criticism of either power or care – I love them both, in fact, and both are central to the setting up of a good stable school – but the specific ideas of power and specific ideas of care that are so easily perpetuated tend often to be symbiotically linked with the binary oppositions of men/women and masculine/feminine.

The final thought I want to churn out is one that will hopefully lead lots of us on to think deeply about our own classroom and our own teaching. As I am sitting here (cross legged in considerable discomfort on the floor of the carriage in a long train back to London) I am feeling equally uneasy with some of the realisations I am having.

Here is a question to jab you in the brain. To what extent do we as teachers reward children when they conform to gender stereotypes? On first glance, perhaps this isn’t something you feel you do, but when we dig deeper, our sense of what is good behaviour or appropriate behaviour is often gendered.

You probably have kids who love jobs. They all like jobs. I have three girls who come into my class every day asking to do jobs – they want to sharpen our pencils, tidy our tables and stick in homework. They do it together and enjoy a good chat as they do it. I send them out to play sometimes, but my view of them is that they are really kind, funny to have around and helpful, and when they like offering to help me in ways that are genuinely helpful to me, I very often let them. And I thank them. When I do this, what exactly is it that I am rewarding?

I have a really wide and extensive library in my Book Corner now. I let the kids have a free choice from the wide selection of books I have. I have classics. I have primary new classics, like Harry Potter, Mr Gum, Roald Dahl and David Walliams (big fan). I have encyclopaedia and science dictionaries. I have books about politics, voting and social issues like racism and violence. I have picture books of astounding beauty and elegance. I have storybooks featuring the faces and places that reflect their own lives and families – stories with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh characters, set in paddy fields, markets, Western cities, bazaars and in their family homes. I have great interesting books. They choose from them. The majority of boys choose books on sport and quests and adventure and science fiction. The majority of girls choose books about small animals, fairies and princesses. I don’t think my children have an innate desire to read crap samey little stories such as these, about little white western characters, but I do think that given a choice, kids choose to do the thing that they perceive to be socially appropriate. If one of my boys so much as touched a princess book, he would be at risk of some quiet whispered comment from another boy policing his choice.

So here is a follow on question – when we give children free choice, how free is their choice? Should we make their choices for them sometimes, and is that not sometimes – paradoxically – far more freeing than their own inescapable tendency to follow the gender stereotypes to avoid standing out as too different? Would it be wrong of me to force the boys to read the ‘girls books’, written and marketed for girls, in order to challenge the idea that they can only read one sort of book, and to allow the boys who secretly want to read it to read it guilt free?

Look around your classroom and watch the kids in the playground as they set up their own games and have their own free time. Notice how they split by gender. Check your own language and check how frequently we accidentally go into a strange autopilot whereby we joke around more with the boys (because men have great sense of humour and women are never funny right?…) and reward the docility of girls. Do you ever have that thought in your head that ‘boys will be boys’ and then use that to justify their ‘boisterous behaviour’ – because boys are ‘naturally more active’ ‘naturally needing to move about more’ and so on?

How much are our expectations of children’s behaviour, character, play, attitudes, workloads, competency, social skill and friendships stratified and differentiated by gender? How much do we challenge that? How much do we confirm it? How much do we conform to it?


3 thoughts on “Primary Classrooms, Gender and Feminism

  1. This is so true. I’ve had three boys. Two of them wanted to play with fairies and wear pink. This was pretty much hounded out of them by the time they started primary school. The middle child, called Gabriel, asked to be an angel in his reception class nativity play. He was told that “angels are girls”. I know.

  2. I honestly think the gender divide, as described here has become wider over time. I may have been shielded from some of it by going to a girls’ junior school but we played chasing games & I read John Pudney adventure books, Jennings & Biggles as much as, well more than girly books like Mallory Towers. I mostly wore shorts & trousers rather than skirts. I preferred science to History and didn’t do make up. But, and here is maybe what is different, nobody remarked on it as far as I can remember. It wasn’t an issue, It was just me. I sometimes wonder if this bending of everything from Kinder Eggs to blue tac is the Patriarchy responding to the advances made in equality. A final last ditch fightback against women?

  3. I taught in three girls’ schools, one all boys’ school and two co-ed across my 30 year career. My experience echoes littlemavis’s here. In the girls’ schools there was far less pressure to conform to female stereotypes.

    Makes you think.

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