On being a white dude who teaches science

This weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in my first-ever unconference, titled “Unconference for the Resistance.” It was put on by the fabulous Lake Washington Girls Middle School, whose faculty and students continue to amaze me in their dedication to social justice, top-of-the-notch teaching methodologies, and extraordinary humility about what they are doing in the world.

As a part of the conference, one attender convened a space called a “Men’s Caucus,” where male-identified or presenting teachers could gather to discuss our experiences of teaching with masculine power.  I didn’t realize it until I walked into that room, but I had been craving such a space for years of my teaching career.  As a transmasculine person, I have experienced what it is like to be a teacher that students perceive as a woman and as a man, and I know the pain of being on the other side of what I describe as “masculine capital” – power that men hold in positions of authority with children just because they are seen as men.  This intersects with my race as well; as a white person, I went from being a white woman in the classroom to a white man in the classroom, which was a step from one form of relative power and authority into one with even more power.

After our conversation, there are a few thoughts I’d like to share on my own reflections of how masculine power operates in schools that I’ve worked in.  These are my reflections after sharing space with other men in the caucus, and then gathering with the “Oppressed by Gender Caucus” that met at the same time across the hall.  Many thanks to all who participated and held that space for us to break down some of the ways gender intersects with teaching.

Masculinity, charisma, and what makes a “good teacher” all intersect when a cult of personality forms around a particular person.

Many spaces I’ve worked in, whether they are schools, outdoor education organizations, or communities of faith, have a tendency to pour affection or grandeur on specific teachers based on their ability to work well with kids.  These teachers overwhelmingly tend to be male.  As it turns out, kids are not immune to the ways sexism overvalues masculinity, as is indicated in studies where male teachers are shown to consistently get higher reviews and different descriptors than female teachers… including online classes where the “male teacher” was actually a woman behind the computer screen.

I painfully remember working alongside men in science education who would do little to no rigorous content with their students, accomplish little during the day, and get tons of credit from students and administrators alike for the work that they were doing.  Meanwhile, I was being harassed by my students for being gender non-conforming, trying to squeeze in content that was both rigorous and engaging, and would constantly be questioned by students as to my expertise or competence.  It was total hell.

And now?  Now I work on the other side of that divide.  Strangers who I am meeting for the first time often tell me that I “must be a great teacher,” which can only be a reflection of how they read my personality, race, and gender expression.  Administrators and parents who have never seen me teach gush about my gifts in teaching, while female colleagues’ talents are taken for granted or left unnoticed.  I often sit with this discomfort and am kind of at loose ends about how to wield this power I now have.  I try to spread the word about the awesome projects my female colleagues create, and highlight their hard work and talents for teaching.  I try to use my voice to step in when kids are perpetuating ideas about teachers or students that aren’t based in evidence, but on charisma.  However, since stepping out of the discomfort of never being believed and stepping into this privileged spotlight, I will admit that it is challenging to stay in touch with the experience of what it is like on the other side.

As a white male teacher, my words hold power to white boys that others’ don’t.  This power should never be held lightly.

First off, I want to acknowledge that the experiences of my students are each unique, and when I make generalizations, I am pointing out trends that are not absolute.  In fact, these trends don’t point to any particular student on an individual level, only to larger societal structures that create the conditions for these things to exist and appear as patterns in my instructional space.  That said, there is a tendency in my student body for white boys to walk into my classroom expecting to be comfortable, expecting to have their opinions heard and supported, and to be confident in their own correctness.  This includes moments when those boys’ ideas perpetuate systems of power or put down others seen as inferior, either because they are not perceived as being in the room or because of structural inequality created by sexism, racism, ableism, etc.  This confidence and comfort is not a given for students who aren’t at the center of power, like girls (especially in STEM spaces) or kids of color.

As a white male teacher, I am in a position to challenge that comfort in a way that kids will respect more than if I was seen as female or non-white.  This is troubling, since as a white male teacher, I have the least experience with day-to-day oppression and the ways that can show up in language and action.  It is clear that with the power I carry comes a responsibility for careful listening, self-education, and humbling myself to the reality that I will continue to mess up in trying to push the comfort zones of all white guys in the room, myself included.

The power of an individual and the power of a subject can intersect as well.

Because STEM is connected to masculinity, STEM also holds masculine power.  As a white guy teaching science and computer science, there are so many layers to the intersections of my power in the classroom.  When a history teacher discusses issues of race and social justice, that is something that is expected or taken for granted.  When I talk about issues of race and social justice from a scientific perspective, that seems radical and new.  Moreover, the logic and reason associated with science make my arguments about how race and racism impacts health, well-being, and the history of science seen as more “real” than the “soft” study of history, social studies, or anthropology.

As a trans person, I have the distance from what is considered a “normal boyhood” that could empower me to redefine what creates a healthy development as a boy-identifying child.

This is one topic we talked about a fair amount, and something that I want to pursue further.  When engaging with boys in my classroom, there is a tacit assumption that as a male teacher, I “understand” boyhood from a first-person perspective.  In reality, I never experienced a boyhood – I was assumed to be a girl all throughout my childhood, and was treated through that lens until I was an adult.

While some might consider this distance a weakness (I certainly did in my first year as a male teacher… I was so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing!!), I would like to frame it as an advantage as a person who teaches boys.  Because I am able to observe boyhood from the outside, I am able to see more clearly the ways in which the practices of raising young men can fail to instill empathy, humility, and a healthy relationship to masculine power than cis men who see those things as “normal.”  I can call out those moments in a safe-r way for boys than other teachers might, since they see me as an ally based on our shared identity as male.

Tangentially to this, one thing I tried to imagine was what a productive all-boys educational space might look like, where boyhood was both celebrated and created in a way that was not destructive to gender diversity or femininity among those students or more broadly.  This is not something I’ve explored deeply & would love any resources you have for thinking about this in the comments/in a private message.  What would/does anti-oppression child-centered single-gender boys’ education look like?  Because the goals of co-education don’t always meet the needs of the boys in my classroom well!  That’s a whole new blog post right there…!

Male teachers need spaces to talk about masculinity and power.

Overall, I left the caucus incredibly grateful for the space and eager to dive into these topics further.  I want to invite other men that I work with to have these kinds of conversations in a way that is productive and allows us to start disentangling the many threads of the web of masculinity and power.

What are your thoughts?  How has gender, perceived or projected, impacted your relationship to teaching?  How can we create a healthy relationship to masculine power with the assumption that sexism exists, persists, and should be dismantled?

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