I, Woman, Teacher.

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.



IMG_8494.JPGWhat 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.

Courtesans and Questions: On Rediscovering Femininity

“You need to…,” the choreographer tilted her head, looked at me. Then she grabbed my shoulders and gently twisted them back. “Chest out.” She smiled. “Seduce the audience! You can do this.”

Can I? I thought to myself. I had been working on this piece for nearly an hour, and I was slowly realizing that my body was… different than it used to be. There are some things I’ve obviously grappled with (and written about), but this was an entirely new experience.

In college, I was a Salsa and Ballroom dancer (the video below was from about 6 months or so of dance training. I ended up dancing at a sort-of competitive level for a few years. What I mean to say is: I got better than this, I swear! But I thought it’d be fun to share).

I wasn’t amazing (and yes, I can tell you most of the technique mistakes I make in this video). I just loved doing it.

Furthermore, it was part of the way I learned to embrace myself as a young woman. When I was a teenager, I was chubby and dark and had upper-lip hair. I liked sports and hung out with boys. In Laguna Beach, California, this made me a target.

So, from high school and into college, I began to embrace what I thought of as my “feminine wiles.” I body-rolled and shook my hips. I learned to wear lots of makeup, handled the lip situation, and wielded the power of glitter and sparkly dresses. I had fun.

salsa

My partner, Rigo, and I with awards in 2007.

Then, after college and becoming a teacher, my body started changing. I also started understanding my physical relationship with the world a little differently.

I began lifting and running and building muscle. For many women, fitness involvement often puts us in the position where we must defend our femininity.  This has made me question the perception and objectification of my body– both internally and externally– ever since. I have been questioning gender expression and trying to push my own biases both in myself and my students.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 3.30.46 PM.png

 

I have been living in that place, it seems, for years now.

Then, a few months ago, I was cast as a courtesan in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I was (and am still) incredibly hyped to do something that I haven’t done in nearly a decade.

Also, a little part of me was scared and excited to do something I really haven’t done in years: act girly. I have to shimmy (which I am bad at) and shake and ostensibly seduce an audience. This leaves me where I began: standing in a mirror, trying to make my body do things that, years ago, were my shield, armor, and power.

Now, I am slowly realizing something: 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 often seemingly put me in a place of oppression.

So, I gave up those things. I rarely wore makeup. I no longer danced. Instead, I ran and punched. I decided to see how much I could lift or how much faster I could run. I tried to subvert the patriarchy by showing I could mimic its forms.

As I dig deeper into this show (which, as a piece of satire, says some interesting things about women), I am forced to hold up a mirror to my own ideas of feminity, power, and vulnerability. I have written that, as an educator, to show one’s vulnerability is often the greatest show of power (Brene Brown talks about this too). If I’ve held to this belief in my teaching practice, maybe it’s time to try and put it to work in my, you know, existence as a woman as well.

Instead of running from the parts of this that are scary, it’s time for me to remember something essential: I had fun being girly! I felt sexy and strong. I enjoyed myself.

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– and I am, all the time– then I would hate to be complicit in the myth that female sexuality or femininity is somehow weak.

As I move through 2016, the challenge isn’t just being in a show for the first time in years. I am challenging myself to stand in that mirror and love the sensual, feminine, “girly” side of me as much as the one that runs marathons. I am reclaiming that aspect of identity as anything but weak and seeing it for its full worth as wonderfully and beautifully powerful.