The girl teacher in the room

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Last semester I spent a lot of time observing a male colleague teach English 320 Business and Professional Communication and English 321 Writing in the Tech Professions as part of field experience in preparation to teach those classes at a future date. During the observations, I could not help but notice that he seemed to have an easier time gaining respect, especially from the alpha male English 321 students, than I would.

Now, it should be noted that the male colleague and I have almost no physical similarities. He is tall and could possibly be considered imposing. I am short and definitely not unapproachable. In fact, I think I am at times far too approachable.

But after completing this field experience, I begin to reflect more on the differences males and females encounter in the classroom. And something happened recently that has made me think way too much about this whole dynamic.

Yesterday in class I had a student texting during group work. As I was letting students know it was time to finish up, I mentioned in an almost off hand way that I had noticed this particular group was done since Sam (not student’s real name) had been texting. At first, the student looked at me like what, and gave me all these nonverbal cues to suggest I was possibly crazy (shrugging, looking around innocent, looking around at people like wow, it isn’t me, the teacher is just crazy). I then said, no, pretty sure you were texting and after that he seemed to more or less admit to it. After this incident, I realized that this happens to me a lot regarding male students, in particular.

Another example occurred last semester during a section of English 358. I was giving a mini-lecture about something and two boys at the side of the room were having their own conversation. I got after them and told them to cut it out. One of the boys then shrugged and acted like he didn’t do anything by clearly saying, “what, we were not doing anything” when in fact the whole room could have heard their conversation.

Meanwhile, I had noticed that the male colleague I was observing would often get apologies from his male students if he called them out, particularly in his English 321 class. He also would not get the same reaction I did, i.e. you are crazy thinking I was misbehaving. The whole dynamic was different.

In some ways, I imagine it goes without saying that there are differences, but it still bothers me that there are. If it is harder for women in the classroom to gain respect, wouldn’t that interfere with our pedagogy in some way? Wouldn’t that interfere with class time? I would think so and it probably does in subtle ways we do not always stop to notice or maybe we are just so used to the differences we deal and not think about it.

So my question is, is this just because I am the female teacher in the room this happens? Think of how women have been portrayed historically: emotional, slightly crazy, and not rational thinkers. Each time things like this happen to me, I can’t help but think these behaviors I noticed are gender-specific.

So with that in mind, do any of you other teachers encounter similar behavior from male or female students? I’ve only mentioned incidences related to males in my classes in this post, but it is possible girls have reacted the same to me. Though in my memory, girls are usually more upfront about their behaviors and often apologize for it. I seldom receive apologies from male students for disruptive or inappropriate behavior. So i am pretty curious as to other experiences other instructors have had.


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