This post originally appeared in Education Week.
This week marks the beginning of Women’s History Month. I am interested in hearing from other female teachers about how their gender identity affects their practice in the classroom. Please contact me if you’d like to share some of your thoughts.
What does it mean to be a woman in education? I asked myself on a run this morning. For all my discussion about “identity,” I realize that I have actually done very little reflection about my gender identity as a teacher. I deconstruct it occasionally in my personal life, but I haven’t really thought about what it means as an educator.
I think it’s important to remember with this month, as with all months devoted to a group of people, that simply because it’s “[_____] History Month” doesn’t mean that the conversation is only about the past. It is important to know not only where we come from, but also consider how this aspect of our identity influences the present spaces we are in with our students.
Here’s the thing I realized: I know that being a woman in education (where I am in the majority, which also has interesting implications), is important and affects the way I interact with my students and my work. I just have no. idea. how.
I am eager to keep reflecting and hopefully hearing other’s thoughts on the subject. All I have right now are a few moments from over the school year.
“WOO-woo!” A sharp, high whistle pierces the air. My students and I all instinctively turned towards the street and watch the truck slowly stop twenty feet ahead of us at a stoplight.
Back on the field, a few girls and I roll our eyes instinctively. I am surrounded by my fifteen upper-classmen drama students, and we are stretching on a field bordered by a busy street. While the whistle doesn’t surprise me, it does fill my stomach with a white-hot rage. It’s frustrating enough when I am whistled at on a street while running or merely trying to get from point A to point B. It is infuriating that someone felt it was their right to harass my underage female students.
I look back at them, then back at the truck. “Was that the car that did it?” I ask, knowing the answer– the window is still open, a man’s arm hanging out with a sly face occasionally peeking back and laughing, as though he is daring me to say something. My girls nod.
I look back at them, think for a moment, then begin moving towards the car. I briefly turn to my students and lob my room keys at one of them. “Go back to the classroom. I’m going to go have a talk with them.” The kids cheer briefly as I run over, before heading upstairs.
“I just…” she trails off. One of my ninth-graders sits above my desk on a stool, reading her paper rough draft to herself. In a paper about love, she has revealed an emotionally abusive relationship she was in. She wants to finish the paper by writing about how she learned to love herself.
“I just… I don’t know how to write about myself. I feel weird talking about what being strong feels like,” she finally finishes.
I take a second, understanding her sentiment completely. “Why do you think it’s hard?” I ask.
“It… feels weird,” she shakes her head.
“I think a lot of times we as women are told not to write about ourselves or what we like about ourselves,” I offer. “Because, you know… the patriarchy.”
She smiles. We have often talked about “the patriarchy.”
“I think writing about yourself can fight against that,” I continue. I look at my own computer, full of open drafts that I, too have abandoned because they felt “weird.” I look back at her, “Maybe writing about ourselves can be a radical act.”
She thinks about it, then nods her head.
“Ms. Torres, do you ever wear make-up?” A student asks me towards the beginning of the year. With the exception of the first day (where I wore slacks, a button-up, and a bow-tie), I rarely go beyond combing my hair and throwing on a pair of baggy jeans before school.
My regular day-to-day wear consists of ripped jeans and UFC gym attire. I often mention to my students that I am headed to an MMA class or off for a run or to lift weights.
All of this is with purpose. At some point, I began to see traditional, stereotyped forms of femininity as weak– or, at least, as vulnerable. To be feminine and pretty meant to conform to societal norms that seemingly put me in a place of oppression.
So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced Salsa. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how fast I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.
I look at my student and laugh. “No, not unless I have to,” I said. Then, in a mock-conspirator’s whisper, I say “I’m a bit too busy to worry about stuff like that.”
The student laughs, and I do too. Then I catch the gaze of another female student. She is often well-dressed and wearing make-up. I don’t know if she has heard me, but I can’t help but wonder how she would feel about my comment. Would I have embarrassed her? Shamed her? Angered her?
Now, I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of femininity, power, and vulnerability. It took years to let go of the idea that my identity as a woman was tied to dressing and looking a particular way. If I am trying to subvert the patriarchy then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that femininity is somehow weak.
I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons and talks sports with my students. I worry that to do anything less would send a detrimental and subtly misogynistic message to my students. Instead, I want to reclaim that aspect of identity as anything but weak, and see it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.