Professional distance and politics

In this week’s “Tough Young Teachers”, one of the trainees talks about professional distance, mentioning he’s not a father/brother/uncle, but a teacher. Sure, the lesson of his week seemed to be that letting his guard down a bit led to big gains with a hard-to-reach student; but most teachers will agree with the dictum of professional distance.

It’s not that I’ve ever fiercely guarded my private life, but if it doesn’t come up at a time when learning is not happening (and without a tutor group, it doesn’t tend to) I won’t mention it. This week, one student asked me during break if I was a nun, which interested me, but was possibly more to do with my below-the-knee skirt than anything else.

Also, there is the legalese on political balance to be aware of – you can’t fly a particular political flag in your classroom; you must introduce balance. These are impressionable young minds, after all. 

Over the years, I’ve shied away from politics and political statements more and more. I think this is mostly down to my personal preference to be inoffensive to others, as well as my general ennui with the political game.

Increasingly, I’m starting to wonder if this is an acceptable approach.

A couple of years ago, one of my oldest and dearest friends asked me to go to see a film with wadjdaher that she had free tickets for called “Wadjda.” I agreed, mostly because time with her is golddust (she spins many plates) and I wanted to catch up. It came as a genuine surprise to me that this film was scheduled on Internetional Women’s Day, mostly because I didn’t have an awareness of when that day was. Before the film, we chatted, among other things, about “feminism” and both agreed that 1. We weren’t feminists and 2. We thought feminism was a bit outdated.

After the film, we were both put firmly in our privileged places by the media before us. Luckily for us, we live in the UK, where a woman’s freedom is equal to a man’s; a woman’s legal rights are equal, access to education is equal, and the right to work and generally live unfettered lives of choice are equal. My ignorance of the experience of the rest of the world was poorly showcased as I watched open-mouthed at a little girl who was not allowed to ride a bike in public, in a film set not in the dim and distant past, but today, right now, in a different part of the world.

And then I sort of got on with my life.

Somewhere along the way, I found myself reading Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman”, which is hilarious and brilliantly written. I nodded along to everything she said, while simultaneously recognising that, actually, I conform to many of the expectations society unfairly has of women (example: I do things men do not, such as wear make-up: Moran tells us we need to ask one central question to see if something is fair or not, and that is “are the men doing it?”).

And then, again, I got on with my life.

But misrepresentations of women are all around us, and accepting this and buying into this is undeniably damaging for the future generation – this future generation, part of whom I happen to teach, working, as I do, in a girls’ school.

Working in my second girls’ school was definitely unplanned. Although I loved my first, I sought to broaden my experience by joining a mixed school. And although I was offered a great job in just such a school, I happened to fall in love with my current one on interview day, and here I am.

I have always maintained, however, that segregation of schooling for any reason (money, faith, gender) is wrong. I’ve maintained this very, very quietly, because I really hate disagreeing with people. I’m also a terrible debater, so I’d rather write my views here and run away. I can’t hold my own in an argument. I start smiling and nodding too soon.

My belief that gender segregation of schooling is unfair stemmed from research I encountered early on in my career that, while girls do just as well in single sex schools as in mixed schools, boys don’t. By this, of course, I mean exam results. So there are a whole lot of boys out there who aren’t getting as good of a deal as the girls I am lucky enough to teach.

Miss_Representation_(2011)The film “Miss Representation” has put me firmly in my place on that. Because actually education is not just about exam results. So the boys don’t do as well in their GCSEs? They go on to dominate the media and society as a whole in every conceivable way.

I visited a school in my first year of teaching with a heavy boy bias, due to being flanked by several girls’ schools in the surrounding area. While there, a colleague informed me that the girls had a big problem with “self respect”: they would let boys talk to them inappropriately, and even touch them inappropriately, many of them falling in line with the expectations of women the media had of them. I sat in on a wonderful assembly, where the girls were gathered and shown this Dove ad. They were spoken to about their potential, and the role they should be looking to play in society.

In “Miss Representation”, the media’s bias is laid bare, with advertising, tabloid journalism, music videos, news broadcasting and politics all explored to mine the cultural implications for women. Watching this, I found myself thinking about the students I teach, and the amount who can become very passionate and articulate about why they should be allowed to wear make-up to school, but don’t seem to have an awareness of why they, as females, are expected to wear this make-up while men are not.

I’m wary that banging a feminist drum will alienate people, but perhaps I need to be a better role model for the students I teach. It’s really hard to get some students to buy into education, but what if they knew the world they would enter into would be one where their voices would be always judged in accordance with their looks? Might they better see the link to be made between an education and redressing the balance?

These are impressionable young minds. I’m in a privileged position to be leading them. I think it needs to get political.

Women in literature (or: this one’s for the girls)

I didn’t choose to work in a girls’ school. It just sort of happened. Twice. I wasn’t even aware, the first time, that girls’ schools existed outside of the independent sector. And this is in no way me weighing in on the argument about mixed or single sex education: I am too utterly torn between the unfairness of working in phenomenal schools that effectively exclude 50% of the population, and the fact that girls are really, really lovely to teach on their own. (I know it’s more complicated than that, so here ends my weighing.)

One thing that I love about working in an all-girls’ school is the way I can shape my lessons and my curriculum to reflect what are also my concerns. I can obviously understand and empathise with the women in literature and the feminist concerns more readily and with more interest than those of the other sex. I know what girls like. And I’m sure my colleagues in mixed schools know what both boys and girls like, but with me there was no learning involved.

It’s self-indulgent to have the capacity to only consider what would interest people I was once like. My reading lists are undeniably lacking in machismo, action or horror, or any of those texts that traditionally don’t appeal to women; don’t appeal to me.

But what is much more important than all this literary laziness is the opportunity to be proactive about women’s issues. That’s right, I said it. Because for all our assumed equality, there is a massive bone to pick with literary history, and I intend on my girls knowing about it and reading about it, then using those glasses to look more closely at the way things are now, and to draw some new conclusions.

Year 10 have just finished studying a beautiful course my department has called “Women in nineteenth century literature.” The first half term, we skipped through “The Lady of Shalott” and waded more slowly through “Jane Eyre,” before considering the female mindset under patriarchy (or, hysteria) in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We then segued into an exploration of women who once earned us the right to vote, looking at the pamphlets they wrote and the speeches they gave.

The young women I teach are full of confidence, and full of brains. They brim with these. There is an overriding concern in some areas of some English departments with what boys are reading, and what boys are learning, and how to engage boys in reading and literature; in particular ethnic groups particularly. But when you dig down in the data, with the luxury of looking only at the girls, the same under-achievements are there. Yes, girls do better overall; but crucially, not as well as they could.

Of course, gender is only one slim strand of a person’s many-textured personality; it is simplistic to argue that if I like it, they like it. But I will be forever grateful for the many opportunities this single orientation has allowed me.