Sunday, December 09, 2012

Feminism and the Education System

I tackled a bit of an issue with feminism and the Church . . . so now let's tackle feminism in the workplace. Specifically MY work place.

Not my house.

I mean, the work place I have been and will be again.

My premise here today is that teachers are underpaid, overworked and the schools are underfunded is because they are predominately staffed by women.

Teaching has historically been a profession of women. Let me rephrase that--PRIMARY school teaching has historically been a profession for women. It is only in the last 50 years or so that you have been able to find female teachers at a university level, but that is a different issue for a different time. For a long time, it was seen as the only respectable thing a woman could do, and probably seen as good preparation for a time when a young woman would have her own children. Times changed, and many of the early working mothers were also teachers. After all, the school schedule often synced to the kids' schedule and mom could still be home to be mom when the kidlets were home.

And yet, even with the feminist revolution, the profession of teaching continues to be dominated almost entirely by women. I'm guessing that most of you in this forum were taught almost entirely by women all throughout elementary school, and it wasn't until high school that those numbers began to balance a bit. Though I'm also guessing that your male teachers were more likely to be math and science teachers than English teachers.

This cultural norm persists for a lot of reasons. It is true that in general, women are more drawn to children than men are. Men who become teachers are more likely to cite an interest in the subject than an interest in children--this is also what draws them to secondary schools. Women are still by and large the primary care givers to their own children and they do want a career that helps them strike a balance with their family life. Teaching plays to strengths that have traditionally been the arena of women--nurturing, listening, directing, guiding, advising, talking, curiosity and so on.

All of these women in the primary schools, however, has given us kind of a weird cultural dichotomy. Boys and girls are taught together by women, though usually with a male principal. By age 15, most of their "hard" subjects are taught by men. The powerful female math and science role models are harder to find for the girls, just at the time when they stop thinking about dolls and start thinking about the future. This void is filled with boys, a preoccupation with appearance, and idiotic or cruel women who keep making it on to TV. The boys on the other hand, finally begin to see some men in the classroom. And again, these men are teaching the "hard" subjects. Math! Science! Computers! Business! Ways to make money! Their perception becomes that women teachers were okay when I was doing baby stuff like learning to count and read and such, but when I need to know the really tough subjects I need a man to teach me.

Is this an oversimplification?

Of course.

I'm a female science teacher with a biology degree and about to have another in technology. I hope that I'm not too much of an anomaly.

But it is true that we have a weird cultural construct happening in our schools: women do the majority of the basic skills teaching at our schools. Men take on a larger share of the specialized content, and administrative work. Children love their teachers and many seek to emulate them. If this is what they see as "normal" (men in charge and doing more intense intellectual work; women only working with young children and reporting to a boss), then it can lead to persistent cultural attitudes about what boys/men and girls/women are capable of.

The other place where feminism has a place in the school conversation is in funding. Salaries can be argued lot--after all, teachers really do only work 75% of the hours that other people work (arguable, teachers can put in a lot of extra hours when the kids are in), but the working conditions when described from the outside seem almost insurmountable. If you have never taught in a classroom, walk with me for a moment in the shoes of my son's second grade teacher. She has 38 children every day. In just one year, these children need to be ready for their first round of standardized testing in reading, writing and math. She has children of wildly varying abilities. In addition, she is expected to put together regular science units, art projects, field trips and music. Her break from these children each day is relegated to two 15 minute recesses, though some of those children stay in to do homework they didn't finish at home because they don't have help there. She has to be almost simultaneously a coach, referee, actress, paramedic, social worker, grief counselor, bully monitor, and cheerleader. She must be the most creative, dynamic and flexible thinker in the room.

When is the last time you felt overwhelmed in a primary class of eight eight-year olds?

Now times that by almost five. 38 children. Every day. Adorable and eager to learn, but so full of every human need imaginable.

I've never seen a teacher work as hard as she has this year. My child is thriving. I love her.

She is worth millions for the gifts of learning she gives to these children . . . for the earning power she is growing in those young, hungry minds.

And yet, every year, her worth is judged by a male principal. A male superintendent and school board comprised of mostly men. Ultimately, their decisions are based what the legislature decides. Again, mostly made of men. Men raised in the same system that tells them women are good for working with little kids teaching the "easy" (reading and adding seems pretty easy when you are 60; not so much when you are 6) stuff, and that men in business are worth more cause they do the "hard" stuff. Men raised in a system that tells them women in the classrooms can take it because they like kids; they are creative enough to make something out of nothing; teacher salaries are just supplemental to husband salaries anyway.

Now, don't get me wrong. Even my own father, absolutely a product of his time, never once considered me to be of less worth than my brothers. I was encouraged in every way imaginable to take full advantage of my education. I was never give a pass in math and science because I was "just" a girl. I am not saying that trouble with our schools can be boiled down to this argument, nor that more money in schools is the answer.

But I am saying this:

Isn't it funny that the military, stacked full of men and manly things (horses and bayonets) and funded by man-powered governments always seems to have plenty of money?  There are ridiculous reports of huge pallets of cash just carted into military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan and never accounted for. Millions up in smoke. Literally and figuratively.

And isn't is also funny the schools, stacked full of women and female things (binders full of women) but funded by man-powered governments never seem to be able to really do what they need to do. What could YOUR local school do with a huge pallet of cash? I bet you wouldn't build a bomb to take out the school across the city.


FoxyJ said...

I agree. One problem with the funding issue is that it has a tendency to perpetuate the problem--male teachers are more likely to be the primary income providers for their family, yet in many states (like mine), you can't provide for a family on the income paid to teachers. So, men either don't choose teaching as a profession or they quickly move into administration. You have schools like the one my children attend where every member of the staff is female, except the principal. They are all great educators but I would love to see a female principal and more male teachers.

I work in libraries and many of the same issues come into play. Again, the money is all in administration. Cultural stereotypes also come into play--does 'librarian' make you think man or woman? People assume the job is 'easy' and 'fun', not something that requires a lot of training, flexibility, creative thinking, and so on. Just because librarians and teachers give people warm fuzzy feelings doesn't mean that they don't have real jobs that deserve real pay.

Melanie said...

Have you been reading the slew of recent articles about Finland's education system? (This is a good example of one of those articles:

I'm sure there are negatives to a system like this, but it sure sounds a heck of a lot better than what we've got.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Thanks for the link. I've got to run now but will check it out later (it is long). I think the thing that is interesting about the Finnish system that has been touted in the US a lot lately, is that Finland:

* is relatively small
* has an incredibly low poverty rate
* is totally fine with a much more socialistic government than ours
* pays a parent to stay home with their children when they are young, or provides excellent child care
* has a more reasonable standard of what defines good living than the Americans do

Our social structure won't allow us to entirely apply Finnish principles here. Their teachers still aren't paid very much, though they are well-respected. Their classes aren't much smaller than American classes.

When you have a major political party stand up on national television and deride other politicians for being "too intellectual" and accusing teachers of being lousy and just being out for more money . . . we have a CULTURE problem.