5 Ways I’m Learning to Be Less of a Woman when Teaching

A common complaint that I hear among my female colleagues is that men teachers earn respect from their students much easier than women do: male teachers don’t have as many problems with discipline, the kids automatically like them, men are physically bigger and louder, etc., etc… I don’t necessarily agree with these comments, but I have noticed that the masculine male teachers tend to have an easier start to the beginning of their year than their feminine male and feminine female colleagues. So what gives?

blurry test.jpg

I don’t think it’s that men are just inherently more likeable, although it is easier for young boys to look up to a guy whether us ladies are trying to challenge that or not. However, that percentage of the classroom (young men looking for masculine male role models) only makes up a few members of the class. It doesn’t explain why masculine male teachers tend to perpetuate this stereotype that all men have an easier time of it. I’m going to argue that it’s more to do with the feminine qualities that a lot of female teachers, and yes a lot of male teachers too, tend to demonstrate but which are counter-productive to the classroom setting. Don’t understand what I mean? Well, here are a few examples where it’s better to be less of a woman and more of a man in the classroom.

5 examples where it’s better to be less of a woman and more of a man in the classroom…

#1 Don’t talk like a lady. Be direct.

Be direct in your speech. A lot of women like myself, and some men, use softeners in their speech to make their requests more polite. With other women, this process of softening requests, ideas, and statements usually works.

If a colleague simply said to me, “Give me your board pens,” with no softeners or fillers, I’d be annoyed and quite frankly think that colleague was very rude. As a polite person, I’d be much more receptive to the softer, “Hey, is it okay if I borrow your board pens?” See the difference between the two requests?

This kind of speech works with other adult women because ladies tend to think this type of speech is polite and courteous (generalizing here, I know, but bear with me).

However, this kind of speech doesn’t work in the classroom.

Teacher – Excuse me, Thai, would you please stand up and give the class your report now? Okay?

Yeah, Thai, didn’t hear or understand a word you said. All he heard was the question at the end, which leaves him to respond freely with a carefree “no.”

I usually teach EFL classes, so this advice is even more important in these lessons, but even when I taught reading in U.S. schools, a request like the one above would be ignored. Speech softeners not only make your requests more confusing for young people (and EFL learners), but even when the students have no problem understanding the request, they may misinterpret the “polite” softened speech as either a sign of weakness or having more than one possible response.

If you want Thai to stand up and deliver his report, then tell him that with no softeners and no fillers.

Teacher – Thai, stand up and read your report now.

Thai knows exactly what you expect him to do. You simply cannot treat your classroom of twelve-year-olds (or even eighteen-year-olds) like they are your peers. Be direct. Speech softeners are only going to make your directions confusing and/or misleading for students. I’ve learned this the hard way.

#2 Don’t give too much motherly praise. Only give praise when it’s deserved.

Don’t praise your students too much. Telling your students, “Good job!” every time they finish an exercise is not only going to slow them down, but it’s also going to show them exactly how low your expectations are.

I’ve noticed in particular that women tend to praise their students every time they say something even remotely intelligent or anytime they’ve gotten an answer half correct. I often fight the urge to do this as well, but I’ve learned that if a behavior or response is not exactly what I wanted or expected of a student for that lesson, then praising them for it is dangerous.

Only give students praise when they’ve done something impressive: successfully used a grammar point in speech, gotten a 90% on their homework, finished an art project they’ve been working hard on all week, etc. Kids are aware whether they’ve actually earned something or not, and trying to make them think otherwise is pointless and damaging. Tell them they’ve done a good job when they’ve done a good job, not before.

#3 Don’t ignore or hide from wrong answers. Call students out when they’re wrong.

Similar to number 2, I’ve noticed that women teachers (myself included) have a hard time telling students when they’ve done something wrong.

Well, guess what, students are not going to learn if they don’t know when they’ve screwed up.

That also means no hedging or trying to twist their answers to make them correct.

Student: Present continuous is when something happens today.

Teacher: Well, yes, but also it’s something that is happening right now.

Uhhh, no. The student messed up. Why did the teacher tell him, “yes?” Now that student will walk away with the first incorrect answer always cemented into his or her brain as an acceptable answer. If a student says something wrong, correct them.

Student: Present continuous is when something happens today.

Teacher: No, that’s not right. It’s when something is happening right now.

Student: Today is now!

Teacher: Is it? What about tonight? Is that now? What about breakfast this morning? Is that now?

Student: Oh, okay. I get it.

Letting students get away with incorrect thinking by pretending that they are “almost right” doesn’t work. It’s a feminine urge to try to shield students from embarrassment, but it goes against the point of the classroom.

Go ahead and correct students if they’re wrong. And do it guilt-free.

#4 Don’t feel bad about punishment. Learn to forgive yourself and be consistent.

Speaking of guilt-free, let’s talk about punishment. I can’t go into everything I’d like to say here about consequences, routines, and rewards, so let’s just start with the basics and assume that most teachers have some kind of routine and system set in place and that they try to uphold it as consistently as possible.

Why, oh, why then do female teachers, and a lot of male teachers, feel bad after administering consequences?

This problem also tends to be a particular issue for new teachers, but let me tell you, if no one has told you already, students bounce back. For the most part, they aren’t going to hate you for holding them after class if you’ve already told them that being held after class is a possible consequence for bad behavior. Students, even young ones, get it. If you’ve got a routine in place and a student has screwed that up somehow, that student expects some kind of consequence, and even he or she isn’t happy about it, that student isn’t going to turn against you forever.

And even if they don’t like you, at the end of the day that doesn’t matter. You can always work on trying to win them back, but the most important thing for your day-to-day lesson is that you hold up consequences consistently for all students. Don’t feel bad about punishments and consequences, because when school is over and the students go home, you can bet they’ve forgotten about the “punishment” well before you have.

#5 Don’t say sorry. Unless you really, really need to.

I debated about whether I should add this point here, but decided it was worthwhile mentioning, as it is a characteristically “girly” trait to apologize more often than necessary and men do not seem to do it as much.

Sometimes you have to say sorry. If you messed up and taught your students something incorrect or punished someone who didn’t deserve it, by all means, apologize. It’s not going to hurt your class to let your students see you as human.

However, that doesn’t mean you should apologize for everything. Don’t ever apologize for administering well-deserved consequences, giving a “boring” lesson, teaching something difficult, calling someone out on a mistake, or not teaching each and every lesson utterly flawlessly.  You’re students are here to learn and so are you. Neither of you should ever have to apologize for that.

Teachers, you should keep that sorry saved for when you really need it. People do make mistakes, so I’m sure at some point in your career you’ll be glad you held onto those sorries until you really needed them. If you do wind up saying sorry to your class (which you undoubtedly will), your students will know you meant it.

In conclusion…

I think female teachers have a tendency to ignore the above 5 behaviors in tough male teachers, and pretend that it’s simply sex accounting for the different experiences that men and women have in the classroom. But I believe it has a lot more to do with traditional gender behaviors, which can and should be examined regularly, not only in teaching but throughout our lives.

But in case I’ve given you the impression that feminine traits have no place in the world of education, let me leave you with this list of stereotypical female traits which are also important in a creating a positive classroom environment.

  1. Talking less and listening more is a traditional feminine quality that is key to student-centered classrooms. And it’s one that a lot of very masculine people don’t seem to possess, so if you’re good at sitting back and listening to your students, take pride. Your students will certainly appreciate the chance to express themselves and their ideas academically.
  2. Being aware of emotional classroom dynamics and being able to adapt to these non-verbal tides… is also a stereotypical feminine quality, but one which is extremely useful in a fast-paced classroom community.
  3. And showing that you care for your students without feeling weak or (worse) being told that you’re creepy is something that usually only female teachers can do. This one makes me sad for male teachers. They have to be a lot more careful than I’ve ever had to be when forming relationships, and I think that’s really unfortunate.

So let me know what you think?

Do you think male teachers have an easier time of it than women? Why or why not? And do you agree or disagree with any of the points I’ve made above? Please, let me know in the comments below!



5 Comments Add yours

  1. It is really so true. There were 3 of us on the 6th grade team and most of the boys that I had a problem with , my two coteachers did not and it was SO FRUSTRATING because I did not act like a woman, honestly I was super tough and even then I just didn’t get the same respect that the male teachers automatically got. However, there were other kids who reacted differently to me and were better with me than wth them. It all goes back to the trauma that they have had in their life. I noticed male students with no dads are very rude to women.

    1. shybackpack says:

      Interesting observations.

  2. I am guilty of most of these!! Great insight thanks!

    1. shybackpack says:

      Same. Being a teacher is strange because we’re always policing our actions and reconsidering them. It’s a tough job!

      1. Definitely, and not to mention the difference in class dynamics, sometimes the way we behave as teachers will work great with one class but with another we have to adopt a completely different attitude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s