Gender Equity and Expectations

GEE Whiz, this ain’t easy! A few years ago, after 3 decades in the private sector I made a career change and became an elementary school teacher in Oakland, California public schools. And I joined the distinguished group – which in the past 14 months has ballooned to include anyone remotely aware of what Zoom school means – of individuals that knows Teaching ain’t easy! Not by a long shot. It may seem simple to re-use the same curriculum year after year. But teachers know that with a new group of students every fall, what worked for Jose last year may be irrelevant to Xing Xing this year.

GEE Whiz!! And by GEE I mean there is also understanding, valuing, implementing, and continually working on Gender Equity and Expectations. I was fortunate to learn from and continually be challenged by a teacher credential program at Mills College that emphasized a gender and racial equity and justice practice. Getting my bearings in the classroom was challenging enough, but also being cognizant of any and all the inherent biases I brought with me into the classroom and my practice made it seem truly intimidating. For the most part I believed I understood what was a teaching practice firmly rooted in and able to truly be one of gender equity. But it has been my own Expectations that have been the most vexing.

I was comforted and felt empowered by the progressive upbringing and family life I experienced. I was the only male child in a family of six. My Mom – also a teacher – had a very practical but unmistakable approach to life that clearly stated “all PEOPLE are born equal” and ALL have the ability to succeed and thrive – gender be damned! Of course I had no choice from my early years to believe that was true, but it also became no big deal for me and it was what I expected of myself and the world that my sisters and I were equal, and that as the only male child, I was not going to — and never did — receive any special privileges, benefits, or perks. My sisters were smart, independent, and quite capable of trusting in themselves and succeeding.

From high school into college and my first career of publishing I found myself involved with, championing, promoting, and being supervised by causes promoted and benefitting women. Doing PR for a college women’s basketball team, writing about girls high school sports games, the professional women’s tennis tour, and then being immersed in an industry (publishing) that is predominately female, I had neither the time nor even a thought that there was (mostly) and should be gender equity. Not naive to think gender equity and opportunities already existed, nevertheless I easily believed in and adapted to, and thus created my own expectations that gender equity was achievable and shouldn’t really be that hard.

Those who had a problem with that needed to — well, just get over it or get out of the way!!

So in my first year of teaching I was excited by the unit on Fairy tale adaptations. As a kid I was bored with the traditional ‘happily ever after’ stories so I was eager to see how today’s generation of young folks approached the idea of re-imagining a fairy tale story. I began the process by sharing the fairy tale adaptation I wrote – to model for students. “Cindy from the Hood” was the story of teenager Cindy from East Oakland – quite easily the most talented basketball player of her generation – boys included! My modern take on the Cinderella story, I thought this would resonate with my 3rd graders. They knew the Cinderella story and they were already accustomed to Oakland’s Golden State Warriors as recent 3-time NBA Champions! So my expectations of my 3rd graders believing in, trusting in, and accepting of gender equity in fairy tale adaptations was thoroughly busted when most of the students – and yes to me

disappointingly the girls – said, “You can’t do that Mr. Dennis!” They were perplexed and confused by an adaptation story that focused on Cindy as the star of a professional sports team and that there was no Prince Charming (or maybe that was Steve Kerr – but he doesn’t marry Cindy in my story) and ‘happily ever after’ charming married life for Cindy. The fairy tale adaptation lesson was more about discovering their own creativity, and focusing on one component of an existing story and adapting it – within the general confines of the fairy tale genre. They didn’t have to write a story similar to mine. But did they have to so easily dismiss the notion of Cindy from the Hood? Did they have to so easily proclaim “You can’t do that!” I had expectations that my 3rd graders would understand, believe in, and accept a notion of gender equity that even in fairy tale stories, the girl can be the hero and doesn’t have to marry Prince Charming for it to be a ‘happily ever after story. Guess not.  <Sigh>.

Heroes are prevalent in so much popular culture. And because of the double meaning of the word ‘heroine’ I introduced a term I thought was clever, and able to incorporate a pronoun that proclaimed a female identity…Shero. She-ro. However you want to spell it, my 3rd graders were once again having none of it. Eye rolls, proclamations of “What?!” “Huhhh?!” and general indifference greeted this word. When I asked why they didn’t connect with the word, they again claimed “I couldn’t do that,” and that a hero was a hero — you know, a boy. “And why couldn’t the hero by a shero —- you know, a girl?” I asked. They couldn’t think of a reason. I shared there were 14 of them – which happened to be the number of girls in my class. I also said there were millions of other reasons too. That led to a conversation of what was possible for any young person like themselves. A few gradually recognized that perhaps they didn’t need to sign up for that subscription to a strict, commonly accepted gender-based ideal for girls or boys.

Some hope (and expectations?) restored.

Weeks later while sharing a series of images from a “Would You Rather” game, I had to stop mid-game and point out a serious flaw. After 3 or 4 image pair options asking students who would they rather be like – where each choice only presented male characters as the “good” or “heroic” choice, I

asked my students what they thought of choices that they saw, with no female representation. One student piped in, ‘yeah they didn’t have nay girls and I think they should.” I thanked George – not his real name, but he did go by the ‘he/him/his’ pronoun identification. But my expectations were again busted. I wanted the girls to respond with outrage, disgust, and a demand they either stop playing the game or write to game’s producer demanding genre equity in the images they used and promoted in their product! (It would be great if boys responded in kind too.) I couldn’t imagine my sisters being none too pleased with this type of game, and also thought of countless colleagues and friends over the years who would have also been dismayed by a game that only presents males as choices for the “good” side, and would be busting down doors to show that is NOT the way life is, or should be presented! And the next time we did the game, when once again only male images were generally perceived as the “good” choice, no student said a thing. My Expectations – busted again. <Sigh>.

I’ve had other situations in the classroom, some subtle and some explicit, where the curriculum, math problem example, story, or circumstance was so gender biased against women that I took to crossing out words in books or going out of my way to challenge what was already written. I did not, could not let these types of instances go unchallenged. My hope was that my students would recognize, understand, appreciate, and adapt a similar approach to gender issues in their own education. Yet for the most part, I

never saw or experienced my students do this. At least from what I heard and how they reacted, they didn’t get it. No need to change the status quo. And my expectations, my Gender Equity Expectations – GEE – became less of a GEE Whiz and more of a GEE What?!?!

Teaching is a constant challenge. One’s teaching practice requires constant reflection, adjustment, flexibility, adaptation, and perseverance. I’m still on that journey of understanding more about gender equity in the classroom, in the school environment, and community, and life in general. My expectations that I bring to the classroom and my practice are part of the bias I have with me. I’ve learned to modify my expectations with many different circumstances throughout my life.

So, how do other teaching professionals deal with their expectations when it comes to gender equity in theory and practice in an elementary classroom? Have other teachers promoted, incorporated a gender equity approach into their practice, with any expectations? Were your expectations met? Were others expectations met? Did other teachers have similar expectations to mine? I really wanted — hoped

— that all students and yes, mostly the girls, would love the idea and have my expectation that of course girls can and are the sheros of a story, and life. Gee Whiz… it would be wonderful to hear from you!

-Dennis Fitzgerald

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