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21 December 2011

Praise: Jackson County Teacher's Approach to Bullying

A teacher in Jackson County, Wisconsin is writing a blog called Together For Jackson County Kids with an entry less than a week ago on gender and bullying.  This is particularly insightful.  Here are a few bits selected from that post.
Gender is not a subject that I would have broached in primary grades a few years ago. In fact, I remember scoffing with colleagues when we heard about a young kindergarten teacher who taught gender-related curriculum. We thought her lessons were a waste of instructional time and laughed at her “girl and boy” lessons.
I will confess that when I left industry to become a teacher I thought that gender topics were feel-good nonsense.  Boys and girls knew what they were and it wasn't something I had to worry about.  At the time I knew nothing about transgender issues and nothing about gender identity issues.  I still probably know less than I should ... it is hard to understand such topics if you are simply comfortable with the body you were born into.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I had a child dealing with gender variance (defined as “behavior or gender expression that does not conform to dominant gender norms of male and female”) in my classroom that I realized how important it is to teach about gender and break down gender stereotypes. Why did I wait so long?
While I taught primary education early in my education career, I have focused on secondary and tertiary schools for well over a decade.  The curricular issues are different when confronting stereotyping among teenagers and young adults.  The Jackson County teacher is at a much better point to reduce prejudice and bigotry, but a much more delicate point in terms of balancing those lessons with the demands of parents and the community.  My guess is that he or she waited so long because political pressure leads one to avoid such controversies.

The post continues with several classroom stories, which I encourage you to read in detail.  The second story involves an exploration of expected toys and apparel for males versus females.  Let's pick up at nail polish.
But when we got to nail polish and makeup the children were unsure. “There are some very famous rock ’n’ roll bands,” I said, “and the men in those bands wear a lot of makeup.” Some of the children gasped.
Then Isabela raised her hand: “Sometimes my uncle wears black nail polish.” The students took a moment to think about this.
“My cousin wears nail polish, too!” said another student. Soon many students were eager to share examples of how people pushed the limits on gender. Our school engineer, Ms. Joan, drove a motorcycle. Jeremy liked to dance. I could see the gears turning in their brains as the gender lines started to blur.
This is where things get dangerous for a teacher.  The "gender lines started to blur" will have some parents upset.  This is despite the fact that in a few years many teenage boys and girls will experiment with nail polish, with styled hair, and additional things which once fit into only one gender role or the other.

Wearing nail polish for a boy or not doing so for a girl is not a sign of gender variance these days.  For most teens it is simply in the range of normal.  The good news for students who are gender queer is that the normal range makes it safer for them to have the time and space to figure out who they are.  A decade ago (where I was teaching at the time) dressing goth was considered slightly radical. The world has changed and goth is now boring for many teens.
I also became very aware of using the phrase “boys and girls” to address my students. Instead, I used gender-neutral terms like “students” or “children.” At first, the more I thought about it, the more often I’d say “boys and girls.” I tried not to be too hard on myself when I slipped, and eventually I got out of the habit and used “students” regularly.
This is wise.  I made a mistake during my first year of teaching by addressing a boy as ma'am.  Oops.  I now address a full class as "ladies and gentlemen" or, if students object to that, "gentleladies and gentlemen".  I ask individual students how they prefer to be addressed.  Oddly, this is a surprising question to most of my students.  They do not expect to be consulted on it.  This does not solve all of the problems.  One of the nice things about the Navy was that all officers were to be addressed as "Sir", without regard to gender.  Simple is good.
I have just begun to empathize with the challenges that gender-variant children deal with. For some it may seem inappropriate to address these issues in the classroom. My job is not to answer the questions “Why?” or “How?” Allie is the way she is (although asking those questions and doing some research in order to better understand was definitely part of my process). My job is not to judge, but to teach, and I can’t teach if the students in my class are distracted or uncomfortable. My job is also about preparing students to be a part of our society, ready to work and play with all kinds of people. I found that teaching about gender stereotypes is another social justice issue that needs to be addressed, like racism or immigrant rights, or protecting the environment.
These are all tough issues.  My compliments on the start of this blog.  Again, reading the full article will flesh out "Allie" and help the rest make sense.  The suggested resource at the bottom of the page, Accepting Dads, is also worth your time if you are working with younger kids.

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