As much as I love teaching and am looking forward to the start of the new semester, I always find that regardless of my preparations, I have to adjust my strategy as I go along. Teaching can sometimes be trial and error. This was especially true when I first started teaching, and I learned the hard way that no matter how hard I tried, I could not always avoid sexism in the classroom. But I did learn some helpful ways to deal with it.
The Subtle Sexist
Believe it or not, I’ve always been comfortable dealing with blatant sexism from students. Although I do not cover issues of gender directly in my course, I don’t to shy away from such discussions either. It’s much easier to nip it in the bud than send mixed signals by approaching it with anything but firm criticism. When students use the word bitch or slut in my classroom, I let them know how and why these words are problematic. I also teach them not to use phrases like “all women do x” or “all men like x” in their writing. It’s easy for me to be up front about issues like these. Subtle sexism, on the other hand, sometimes throws me for a loop. I have had to train myself to deal with this.
My first lesson came when I was reading my student evaluations after a particularly rough semester. It felt like nothing I did worked. The students complained about every lesson, every assignment. I surveyed the class to try to find out what was wrong and adjust, but it seemed like nothing helped. Even though I was mentally preparing for the worst, I never could have properly prepared myself for what I read in my evaluations. After filling out the multiple choice questions, students are invited to leave positive and negative comments on the back. I received many negative comments grumbling about the “ultra-harsh” grading policy (to be expected from classes made up of mostly college freshman), but I was shocked to read this review: “I don’t understand what her deal is. Just because she’s a teacher doesn’t mean she has all this POWER. She needs to chill.” And under positive comments? “Nice body.”
It had been an exhausting and disastrous semester, and all I got out of it was a comment about my body. I read these evaluations at the start of the summer session and began to panic about history repeating. The feeling got worse after I talked to some of the other instructors, particularly my male colleagues. The teacher who uses what he calls “public humiliation” (unprepared students must read poetry aloud until he is satisfied) to keep his students in check received no comments like mine. A male faculty member received, under positive comments, “You’re such an asshole – I love it!”
The ‘Power’ Problem
I kept going back to that one negative comment, especially the word in all capital letters: POWER. That’s what it comes down to. There were no comments about my male colleagues’ power in the classroom because owning that power is expected of them. It’s okay for them to use “public humiliation” because that is their right. Being an asshole is a good thing. My power made students uncomfortable. Not only am I a female teacher, but I am a young female teacher. I am not much older (and sometimes younger) than my students. This certainly was a factor. Some of the males in the class did not want to take instruction, let alone discipline from a young female teacher who could be their peer because in most situations with females their age, they are in that position of power.Many of the females were unsettled by my authority in the classroom because they are taught not to seek power. More importantly, I realized that my power in the classroom made me uncomfortable.
Taking The Bull(s–t) By The Horns
It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that although I believed that women deserved to be in positions of authority, I did not apply this belief to myself. I thought that I was catering to the needs of my students by changing my lesson plans and taking surveys, but I was actually handing over control because it was familiar. I finally realized that I was unsettled by my own position of power.
The only solution to this problem was to own my power in the classroom. It was something I had worked for, something to which I was entitled despite what the evaluation said. It is important for women in positions of authority to assert that authority, even when it is difficult. The following year, I was able to deal with a problematic male student by asserting my authority as a teacher. The class had a university-mandated absence policy and he had missed more than double the allowed absences. When he came to speak to me about it at the end of the semester, he quickly got angry when I refused to let it slide. He said, “I just don’t understand why I have to answer to you. I’m an adult!” My first instinct was to retreat, to back down. Instead, I calmly said, “Because I’m your teacher. We’ve discussed the absence policy more than once in class.” He left soon after and although he was still upset, he was considerably less aggressive.
Simply owning my authority made a world of difference in the classroom. That’s not to say that it got rid of each and every problem or that I am always completely comfortable with it; however, it has made dealing with problems a lot easier. I try to mimic my approach to obvious, blatant sexism: nip it in the bud and avoid mixed signals. Everything goes a little more smoothly if I immediately assert my authority when necessary.