Friday, 12 October 2012

Pirates and Princesses

I work in primary education and one of the reasons I love my job is that sometimes (like today) I get to put on a pirate hat and pretend it's 'to engage the children.' I spent the day on a training course about teaching reading where, at lunch, we were set loose on a table of props and toys that can be used to make phonics lessons more exciting.* Naturally, I honed in on the oversized pirate hat, complete with treasure map, treasure and inflatable treasure chest, which I expertly accessorised with a sparkly wand. This fact in and of itself isn't very interesting but the reactions I heard from the other teachers got me pretty riled up, possibly more than it should have: "Oh, a pirate hat! To get boys interested in phonics! I bet boys would really engage with that, if you swapped the wand for a cutlass so you can stab at the phonemes."

Yes, yes, this is just another tiny incident of stereotyping. It's not rape culture, or denying women the vote, or taking girls out of school to marry men four times their age.** Except that it's just another tiny incident of stereotyping. And for the past year and a half that I've been working in education, there's been a steady dripping tap effect of gender essentialism.*** Sometimes it's as simple as a more 'traditional' member of staff expressing surprise that both boys and girls play rugby in PE but often, when you actually start to analyse it, it can be quite sinister. There's an unquestioned assumption that boys will behave more disruptively and more aggressively than girls, that boys won't engage with literacy and girls won't be good at maths, that girls will mature more quickly than boys will. The thing is, teacher expectations have a massive impact on a child's learning - really massive, and much bigger than any impact gender might have (in fact, teaching to gender has been shown to be completely ineffective in this meta-analysis). Pretty much all our assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies, as teachers discipline boys and girls differently, or maybe don't push boys as much as girls in literacy, or girls as much as boys in maths. Inevitably, this means children will learn that there are different standards of behaviour for men and women, and those children who have not had proper teacher support will fail to progress, further perpetuating stereotypes. I'd like to say a lot of this is subconscious but I know it often isn't. One book that was recommended to me as a great training resource actually (in all seriousness) advises quickly breaking up fights between boys but taking a pause before intervening in "girl fights", lest you get scratched by "an angry pair of talons". To suggest that teachers spend any time allowing children to physically harm one another based on their gender is not only incredibly insulting, it's also grossly irresponsible.

The fact that gender stereotyping halts children's education should be enough to show that it's just not on, but it's not the only problem; gender essentialism in schools teaches children that there is a 'right' way to be a boy and a 'right' way to be a girl, not to mention that it completely erases trans* and genderqueer people, and these messages are really damaging. It tells anyone outside the gender binary or who doesn't fall into a stereotypical box that they are abnormal or not worthy of recognition, as well as contributing to a hugely cissexist society by failing to recognise that non-binary experiences are just as valid as cisgender experiences. This is our education system and we are (a) completely, 100% failing to educate people about even the existence of anyone outside the gender binary and (b) teaching children something entirely incorrect about How People Work. Not cool. I've even seen more than one teacher who feels it's appropriate to make jokes about children not fitting gender stereotypes, and nobody else seems to bat an eyelid. Sometimes I do wonder if I'm being unreasonable, given how little everyone else seems to think this matters, but then I remember what we're essentially saying to these children - that, to be validated, to 'count', you must conform to either (a) or (b), depending on which category we say you are and, if you don't, you are a fair target for ridicule from the people who are there to protect you. If we want to combat gender essentialism and cissexism amongst adults and teenagers, we have to eradicate it from primary schools first, since this is where we form our fundamental view of society. Yes, these individual instances may be 'trivial' (I'm actually not sure they all are), but they add up to something fucking huge.

In a very-tangentially-related note, I'll be singing songs and making fun of Michael Gove here tomorrow!


*There's something incredibly heartwarming about a group of adults, from early 20s to late 50s, all getting thoroughly excited by Boggle and pom poms.

**You can petition the UN to Do Stuff about this here.

***Other kinds of stereotyping occur in education, too but, in my experience, everyone seems to have accepted that stereotypes are always A Bad Thing, except in the case of gender, when they're a delightfully -un-PC, common-sense thing that the kids love and are self-evident.

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