“Girls can’t be line managers, only boys.”
“Ms. Pappas, he called me a girl!”
“Ms. Pappas, can my mommy be mayor too?”
“I don’t watch Batman. That’s for boys.”
A few times per week I hear my students make comments or ask questions related to gender. They are aware that some of us are girls, some of us are boys, and, depending on lessons taught at home and through the media, they bring certain preconceived notions about gender differences to the classroom.
While he could not clearly articulate the rationale behind his feelings, the boy who angrily approached me after being called a girl clearly felt insulted. And the boy who declared that girls could not be line managers used a matter of fact tone that alarmed me.
As I reflected on these beginning sessions of Gender 101, I was, coincidentally, watching the unprecedented introduction of President Bush to “Madame” Speaker Pelosi at this week’s State of the Union address. I kept wondering, did a four year old Nancy ever have to struggle to gain a voice in heated debates over who would control the sandbox on the playground? What role, if any, did her teachers play in convincing her that she has just as much a right as young George, Dennis, or Harry to participate actively in decision making processes?
I consider it my responsibility to treat every child with dignity and respect and to teach my students to treat each other the same way. That teaching requires engaging students in a dialogue that fosters a deep and rational understanding of why discrimination of any kind does not make sense and is harmful. I consequently seek to challenge my students with responses that make them think about their developing views on gender.
In the case of the “he called me a girl” comment, I used a neutral tone and said something like, “Okay, are you a girl? No? So just let him know that and move on.” In terms of the Batman remark, I said, “Well, I’m a girl and I love Batman. I love how he uses a rope to jump off of tall buildings and save people. Is that okay? What would you do if you were a superhero?” The mayor comment came up during last year’s mayoral elections when the students were able to “write-in” someone they thought would do a great job leading the city. None of the official candidates were women, and many of the students nominated their dads or uncles. We responded to the “mommy nomination” with a conversation about what it takes to be a good mayor and why mommies, daddies, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, or grandfathers could get the job done.
What happens when a teacher’s views on gender clash with those of families? I have seen plenty of family members scold their children for choosing items from our “Treasure Chest” that they claim aren’t “suitable” for either boys or girls. I have not confronted the families about my own views nor have any family members asked that I limit the choices available to their children. I am curious to know more about your thoughts on the role of pre-k teachers in addressing gender and other issues relating to diversity. Should there, for instance, be explicit conversations with family members even if family members have not openly confronted you?