It’s Women’s History Month and teaching has historically been a female occupation. How does that affect us today? I recently had a conversation with Jose Vilson on this topic, and he has gotten the conversation started here. I hope that other teachers will join in on their own blogs or by commenting.

Here are some of my thoughts. I exaggerate and generalize quite a bit but I do this to show that these elements of the teacher identity are still around, lest we forget. When people say teaching looks the same as it did 100 years ago… well, think about the role of women in that picture as well.

Disclaimer: I also use lots of passive voice (how ironic) because I’m not always sure who the subjects are (society? the man?).

  • Teaching is often thought of and treated as some kind of innate capability, rather than something you become skilled at over time. When a woman becomes a mother, people tell her she will figure out how to do it naturally, when the time comes. There are many who believe teaching works this way as well. While some people do have qualities and prior experiences they bring to the work that help them be successful sooner and appear to be more “natural” in the role than others, the idea that you just “pick it up” is false, rooted in a sexist notion of teaching as unskilled, women’s work.
  • The media loves to portray passionate teachers and society loves it right back. Nothing wrong with passionate teachers but it seems the public, as well as policymakers, are far more comfortable playing up the emotional side of teaching than the intellectual or even artistic side.
  • When the technical, skilled side of teaching is highlighed, very often tools of control that put us in a subservient role also enter onto the scene—tests and other assessments and evaluations we don’t create or control, mandates on curriculum, and methods with little to no input from us. Strangely, there seems to be no place for the passionate teacher on this side of things, yet our technical knowledge and know-how are undermined at the same time.
  • Teachers are simply not acknowledged as artists. Though there are many female artists in the world, historically men have been given credit for being artists. Female artists have traditionally been seen as suspect.
  • Teachers have often been expected to give endlessly of ourselves and our time—like only a mother does for her children. There is often guilt when we pull back from the level of sacrifice that has come to be expected of us.
  • Teachers are expected to be modest. It is difficult to learn to self-promote. Ask teachers who have learned to do it and they will likely tell you a story of how they struggled to get over their hang-ups around self-promotion. (Case in point: I still do not have business cards; just can’t quite bring myself to do it, though that makes no sense.)
  • When teachers stop being modest, they can easily become suspect. I believe this is far less of a thin line in other professions. I could be wrong but I have a sense that male teachers are better at acknowledging the value of their work.
  • We are either loved or hated in the eye of the public. We are saintly, deserving of the utmost respect, put up on a pedestal. In this light, we are often viewed from a distance (the male gaze). Alternatively, we are the problem with public education. We are greedy and lazy and sometimes immoral. Here, we are viewed as if under a microscope. We are rarely described as an essential piece of a larger puzzle with other equally important parts.

Join the conversation! How does teaching’s history as “woman’s work” affect us today?


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