WILLA v11 - The Journey - Teachers as Products of Their Schooling: Disrupting Gendered Positions

Volume 11
Fall 2002

Teachers as Products of Their Schooling: Disrupting Gendered Positions

Kathy Sanford
University of Victoria, B.C., Canada

Gender is a very powerful influence on the journey taken by prospective teachers as they contemplate their path and their destination. Their identity as learners and as future teachers is shaped in part by their gendered experiences in school, and the future teaching spaces they can envision for themselves. There is a distinct intersection, often unrecognized beyond an off-handed comment, between teacher education and gender. As an instructor of teacher education courses and English Language Arts methods courses for secondary students over the past ten years, I have noted an obvious gender pattern that is born out in statistics worldwide. First, a predominance of teacher candidates-approximately 68% are female ( University of Alberta 2001 ), and of those, their paths are predictable-elementary education, or Humanities. These teacher candidates were generally successful students themselves, and often entered university soon after their own high school graduation. A further marked characteristic that impacts on the teacher candidates' selected pathway to teaching is their age---many of the women who select the elementary or Humanities routes to teaching are in their early twenties.

How, then, do these characteristics of gender and age interact and impact on their career choices? Because teachers serve as role models, the attitudes that they present, both implicit and explicit, affect the attitudes and values of the children they teach. In order to achieve gender equity, teachers must, through teacher education programs and professional development activities, be made aware of the importance of gender and make conscious attempts to avoid attitudes and activities that will encourage perpetuation of traditional gender roles ( Schniedewind & Davidson, 1998 ). As teachers generally teach they way they were taught ( Lortie, 1975 ) and draw upon their many years of experiences as students, it is important to find ways to disrupt their implicitly held gendered assumptions about teaching and students. Teachers ' selection of materials, responses to texts, and the ways that teachers express ideas have a powerful impact on children. Their beliefs and actions become inseparable from the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of the students as they develop in classrooms of individual teachers and in school more generally. Therefore, the recognition of gender differences in classrooms is of utmost importance because the attitudes that are fostered in children now will become the attitudes of society in the future.

Karmen's story

The case study I am going to focus on involves a female student teacher, Karmen, as she progressed through her teacher education program and accompanying field experiences. The role that she played in maintaining gender stereotypes and gender- segregated activities and the role that gender stereotypes play in maintaining her in particular gendered constructs will be considered. I met Karmen in a summer course I was teaching during the first year of her teacher education program, and was impressed by the inquiry stance she took to her learning. Karmen, a single, Caucasian woman in her early twenties, was willing to question previous assumptions she held, challenge existing practices, and think about how she might be instrumental in making changes. She was enthusiastic about becoming a teacher and looked forward to the next stages of her teacher education program. At the end of the summer course, Karmen indicated a desire to stay connected with me and a willingness to work with me in examining issues of gender in teaching.

Although Karmen agreed to work with me, she expressed no particular concerns about issues of gender as she learned to become a teacher. She wanted to become a teacher because she loved children, and she had a self-described mental image of herself as a caring teacher who could provide a positive environment and make a difference for all of her children. The child--centered approach to teaching taught in her teacher education program encouraged individualism and active resistance of categorization of students, including by gender. This ideology, comments Coffey and Delamont (2000) "is prevalent in many teacher education courses, where student teachers are encouraged to emphasize children's individual needs and differences, and to avoid stereotyping" (p. 83). This child-centered and nurturing image had developed for Karmen through years of constructing and reconstructing herself in this role, influenced by memories of this type of teacher in her own childhood, by media images, and by popular myths that abound in our culture about schooling. And although she did not consciously question this construction, she also felt some tensions as other characteristics--fun-loving, energetic, dramatic, entertaining--also tried to find spaces in her construction of a teacher identity. These other characteristics challenged the nurturing, warm, and caring image that she felt was appropriate for an elementary teacher, and came from different memories of past teachers (predominantly female until the later grades, where she encountered a few male teachers) and media images. These conflicts continued to surface throughout the conversations that occurred during our two-year association.

In our conversations, Karmen talked about three aspects of gender that arose for her during her teacher education program: 1) her experiences as a student teacher in a school; 2) her experiences with colleagues and fellow student teachers; and finally 3) her experiences as a student in school and university. Although Karmen initially cited a love of children as her primary reason for selecting to teach in an elementary school, through out conversations she also admitted to a fear of older, bigger children, and a fear of not being able to handle the more complex subject matter. She believed that she was not capable of coping with the demands of intellectual challenges and potential challenges to her authority.

The nurturing, caring image of primary teachers was a dominant one in Karmen's mind before she began her student teaching, although her "teacher" image also included excitement and pizzazz. She spoke deprecatingly of not wanting to be "motherly", and described this image as constraining and constricting. This notion of "motherly" described by Karmen refers not to behaviors of real mothers, but rather to stereotypical ideas of how idealized mother-figures should be, that is, indulgent, sweet, and cloyingly sentimental yet lacking intellectual substance. However, in the first class I watched Karmen teach, a grade-one art class, I noted behaviors that fit into the motherly image she was trying to avoid. From the beginning of the class to the end, Karmen used a voice that can only be found in elementary classrooms, slow, soft, high-pitched, and babyish, and she began, "Now, boys and girls…" She helped each child draw winter bunnies, glued fluffy tails on each child's picture, gave words of praise and encouragement throughout the class. She circulated around the room, checking each child's individual progress and maintaining a hushed tone and volume throughout. The class ended with the recess bell, and after all the children had left, she looked at me and said, "Where did that voice come from? What am I becoming?" She was uncomfortable with the persona she had so easily adapted as a new classroom teacher.

Throughout the two years we worked together, Karmen was conflicted about her own developing image and role in working with her students. She wanted, on one hand, to support and comfort each of her students, but she also wanted to be fun, innovative and creative. She could not see how to be both.

Karmen's approaches to teaching shifted considerably as her practicum experiences progressed. She moved from a reliance on worksheet materials, whole-class activities, and teacher-centred approaches to a program that enabled students to make choices, voice opinions, and interact with their learning materials. In a class I observed early in her first practicum, a grade one/two class, Karmen introduced little booklets for the students to read and color. She worked with eleven grade one students in a multi-purpose area outside of the classroom. Although the students, especially the six boys in the group, were largely disinterested in the activity and showed it by rolling around on the ground, throwing pencils, and refusing to work, Karmen maintained her primary falsetto voice, her artificial smile, and her patient demeanor .She focused on getting the students to complete their tasks quietly and offered them rewards for being compliant. She was especially distraught because I was observing this rather disastrous class. However, it was an excellent learning experience, and she quickly learned how to adapt activities to particular needs and developmental readiness. This episode became the topic of many future discussions between us.

In her final practicum, in a grade five/six class, Karmen often demonstrated her previous learning about the needs of her students. She developed a novel study based on The Hand of Robin Squires which, while a very male--oriented selection, incorporated project-based learning, student choice, and active involvement with the text. In other classes, students responded to a variety of texts using different formats such as scripts, research reports, and poetry; role playing was used to help students understand math concepts, and language arts concepts were integrated with science and social studies learning. The students were encouraged to be reflective in their journal writing, and collaborative in their every day learning.

During this final field experience, Karmen taught in a classroom across the hall from another, male, student teacher. She had a supportive and collegial relationship with him, and admired his teaching style that she described as innovative, creative, and exciting; he made use of outdoors environments as much as possible. Karmen saw her colleague's teaching style, creating projects, playing games in the playground, inviting guests into the classroom, as important and highly noticed. This description of her colleague's teaching style, "going outside", became a metaphor for her own teaching aspirations. She saw her own teaching style, attending closely to how students were doing both inside and outside of the class, building close relationships with her students and among her students, ensuring that no one was left out, as unimportant and unnoticed by outside observers.

While Karmen was visiting one of her student's homes for lunch to help her feel more important, inviting small groups of students to stay in at recess to discuss issues and plan a course of action, contacting parents with good news about her students, her male colleague was creating a gigantic paper mache dinosaur for the class, making a huge TV set in which students presented their daily news, playing a ball game called "KOOSH" with students to get them to answer questions, and taking them outside to conduct their own research. Karmen often felt invisible in the wake of these exciting teaching events across her hallway, and frustrated that she didn't know how to talk about her feelings or her own positive contributions.

Karmen's dissatisfaction with her own teaching style was heightened by the relationships that she developed with her students, and her discomfort in dealing with some of the boys in her class. As mentioned earlier, the fear of older, challenging students appeared in the form of several boys in her class. She felt intimidated by them, and pressured to select activities and materials to please them so that they would not challenge her authority. She provided them with more opportunities and greater voice in the class in order to "gain leverage" for discipline purposes; she wanted to avoid the possibility of confrontations in her class; she commented, "Boys are more confident, have more of a voice, and can backlash more and act out." So while Karmen spent more time with the girls out of class, talking with them during recess and lunch, she focused much more attention on the boys and structured activities that the boys would like during class time. During group presentations, the boys often did all of the speaking and took ownership of work that often the girls had prepared. This male domination of classroom space is a well-documented phenomenon ( Sadker & Sadker, 1986 ) that is rarely noticed or addressed by classroom teachers, but needs to be part of discussions in teacher education programs.

Implications for Teacher Education

As Karmen and I continued our conversations about gender issues, she thought back to her experiences as a university student in a teacher education program. She described herself as being oblivious to gender issues, although slightly uncomfortable when she realized that she was in a faculty of mostly women, and that she did not consider the predominance of women to be a positive feature of the faculty. She felt that the men in her faculty were "stepping down" to do women's work, i.e., teaching. And in reflecting on her experiences as a university student, she recognized the difficulty of being recognized as an excellent teacher in a sea of female teachers, whereas it was much easier for the minority of male teachers to be recognized out and their worked singled out as "excellent". Karmen's observation is supported by Coffee and Delamont (2000) who comment, "the majority of recruits into teacher education are female… the feminization of teaching (and teacher training) is secure. Despite this, there is some evidence to suggest that male teacher education graduates do better in securing immediate and permanent employment following the initial period of training." Following recent debates over the relationships between masculinity and schooling and the reported underachievement of boys ( Connell, 1995 ; Mac an Ghaill, 1996 ; Epstein et al, 1998 ; Martino, 1995 ), the perceived need for male role models in schools only serves to place male teacher education graduates in a stronger position for hiring.

There are many other implications for educational practice in Karmen's story. Lack of confidence in their intellectual abilities, their voice, or their knowledge prevents them from moving beyond uncontested teaching practices; fear of being challenged or discovered as not knowing maintains their silence. Belenky's et al (1987) perspectives of knowing explores differences between the ways men and women learn to understand their relationship to knowledge and to their students; it provides a framework from which we can begin to examine and shape the experiences of women in education and challenge existing gendered stereotypes. Young women entering the teaching profession need to be supported as they move through the epistemological categories of:

1) Silence, women experiencing themselves as mindless and voiceless and subject to the whims of external authority,

2) received knowledge, where women conceive of themselves as capable of receiving, even reproducing, knowledge from the all-knowing external authors but not capable of creating knowledge on their own,

3) subjective knowledge, a perspective from which truth and knowledge are conceived of as personal, private, and subjectively known or intuited,

4) procedural knowledge, where women are invested in learning and applying objective procedures for obtaining and communicating knowledge, and

5) constructed knowledge, a position in which women view all knowledge as contextual, experience themselves as creators of knowledge, and value both subjective and objective strategies for knowing.

As women move through these epistemological categories, they gain a greater understanding of the need to address issues of gender in their classes. Whether they select elementary teaching, English Language Arts teaching, Physics, or Physical Education, gender issues impact learning opportunities; women's knowledge is valuable and needs to be valued by all students in their classes.

The role played by teacher education programs is critical in encouraging student teachers to examine their epistemological frameworks and locate places in which they can grow. In a national survey of teacher educators, Campbell and Sanders (1997) found that while a majority of professors addressed gender equity in their methods classes, the greatest amount of time spent on gender equity was two hours per semester, and discussion focused on stereotypes, teacher/student interactions that favored boys, and girls' under-representation in math, science, and technology. The majority of professors spent much less time, and rarely discussed practical gender equity solutions to problems. The lack of attention to practical solutions to equity problems is of concern because research ( Sanders, Campbell, & Steinbrueck, 1997 ) has shown that teachers are willing and able to change their teaching approaches to incorporate gender equity when given the opportunity and education. They suggest that "teacher education is the point at which future educators are accessible …they are there to learn, have time to learn, and don't have years of bad teaching habits to undo." It is therefore critical that student teachers such as Karmen have opportunities while in their teacher education program and as a student teachers to consider alternative practices for incorporating gender equity .If issues of gender and equity do not get taken up in teacher education programs, critical opportunities for change are lost, as previously discussed. Teachers who do not acknowledge and respond to gender will penalize girls for their compliance, through selection of inappropriate and uninteresting materials, lack of attention and lack of recognition of their capabilities: these female students will comprise a majority of our teachers of the future and perpetuate the stereotypes.

However, including discussions of gender equity in teacher education classes is not as simple a solution as it might sound. Coffey and Acker (1991) report that introducing issues of gender in class was often problematic and met by hostility; I certainly found this to be the case in my English language arts methods classes. Student teachers, both male and female, were hostile to considerations of gender as fostering inequity in their classes and often treated these discussions as trivial matters or as personal attacks. They were resistant to categorization by gender and took offence at attempts to read canonical texts from a feminist perspective. Even suggestions that gender-inclusive pronouns be used caused concern that revered classical works were being spoiled. However, by attempting to resist gendered stereotypes, these prospective teachers were unable to move through the epistemological categories developed by Belenky et al to recognize their own knowledge and to reconstruct new knowledge for specific contexts. If they have not moved into Belenky et al's procedural or constructed knowledge epistemologies, student teachers will be uncomfortable with contesting alternative forms of understanding the world and unable to change their own attitudes or teaching practices.


Gender is a fundamental aspect of an individual 's identity, and young women are vulnerable to societal expectations and judgments. They often see the teaching profession as a safe haven, a place where they can have a career and yet not have to survive in a competitive patriarchal world. Young women I have interviewed ( Sanford, 2001 ) report, in addition to the Karmen's reasons cited above regarding fear of older students and difficult content, several other reasons for selecting a teaching career: 1) teaching fits into their future envisioned lifestyle that includes mothering, where they would be able to take several years off to raise their own children, and then resume the job with summers off to be home with the children; 2) they "always wanted to be a teacher", and recalled playing school as a child, working as babysitters, daycare workers, at summer camps; and 3) they recognize a place where competition with men is limited, and a place that is safe and controlled.

These often unconscious views of a teaching career have considerable implications for how female teachers relate to their students, their colleagues (both male and female), and to authority figures (principals, consultants). As suggested at the beginning of this paper, their attitudes and beliefs influence the children they teach and provide strong messages about appropriate ways to act, appropriate course materials, and appropriate ways of interacting with the ideas presented in course materials. It is critical for boys and girls of all ages to be provided with role models who display confidence, enthusiasm and energy to engage with challenging texts in interesting ways, to challenge existing gendered assumptions and encourage their students to do the same. Further research examining the relationships between female teachers, their male counterparts, and their students is needed to better understand the powerful impact of gender on their teaching practices and of the complexities of addressing gender issues in school.


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Reference Citation : Sanford, Kathy. (2002) "Teachers as Products of Their Schooling: Disrupting Gendered Positions." WILLA , Volume 11, p. 11-14 .