As I read the articles “Playing with Gender” by Ann Pelo and “Girls, Worms, and Body Language” by Kate Lyman, I could not help but contemplate the balancing act teachers have to perform of not imposing stereotypes of gender or color on children while at the same time encouraging the discovery and celebration of what it means to be a girl or boy of whichever ethnicity or color she or he is. Preschool teacher Susan articulates one of the reasons this is a challenge, “Our society’s storyline is that we achieve or fail as individuals. When we emphasize being women, or people of color, or white, we either are held back or we get unfair advantages – according to society’s storyline.” (Pelo, p. 40 in Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1) In an effort to not discriminate or give special treatment, many well- meaning people, have willed themselves to become “color blind” and / or “gender blind” in an effort to treat everyone equally. However, because each individual has their own cultural perspective, a teacher runs the risk of assuming every student will function and thrive in the world the teacher sees through her or his cultural lens. Instead of shying away from or glossing over our differences, teachers must “acknowledge [their] own cultural perspectives” as well as their students’ in order to be the most effective teachers and to “cultivate particular values and practices that counter oppression and enhance justice.” (Pelo, p.40, ROC Vol. 1)
A teacher is also fighting against stereotypes conciously or subconciously imposed on children by their families, in entertainment, and society in general. Obviously, a teacher cannot debunk all of these, but he or she can teach children to conciously recognize them and analyze messages they may have otherwise unconciously accepted as the truth. As the Stephen Sondheim lyrics warn, “Careful the things you say, children will listen,” a teacher (and parent) must be constantly aware of what we might be unknowingly teaching our children, after all we have been bombarded with these stereotypes even longer. I wondered if the third grade girls Lyman wrote about had conversations about being fat and going on diets because of conversations they heard their parents having. Were they mimicking these conversations to sound “grown up” or because they genuinely believed they needed to diet?
Teachers should not be discouraged by this responsibility. I am a white female who grew up in 1970’s Houston surrounded by traditional gender roles. I played with Barbies, wore dresses, panty-hose, and make-up becasue it was the “norm”, and was immersed in the dance world for decades where weight and body type is definitely an issue. Despite all of that and all of the unrealistic standards for women portrayed all around us, I somehow learned that health and education were more important for a woman, or man, to have than for a woman to have a man. Teachers and my mother, even with any shortcomings or contradictions they may have had, somewhere along the way gave me the tools to think and assess for myself and most importantly to develop self-esteem. Of course, I will attempt to do this even better than my predecessors, because each generation should do it better than the previous one, right?