Gender Stereotyping Has No Place in My Classroom

Friends and acquaintances said I had lost my mind when I chose to teach middle school nine years ago. I never felt that way, until a few months ago when the West Milford Township School District in New Jersey, where I work, required all teachers to attend a mandatory professional development workshop called “Boys and Girls Learn Differently.” It was to be supplemented by a study of the book by the same title by author Michael Gurian.

I walked into the session with an open mind, as I’m always open to discovering new strategies to reach the students in my science classroom. Instead, I was confronted with a series of generalizations about boys and girls that amounted to antiquated sex stereotypes cloaked in “brain science.”

I walked out of the session determined to do something about it. I contacted the ACLU, which sent a letter on Thursday warning the school district that the training and the teaching philosophy it is based on encourage discrimination based on gender.

The workshop claimed that the way we structure our classrooms is in conflict with how boys are hard-wired to behave, therefore hampering boys’ success. By contrast, the trainers said, girls are innately programmed to do well in our classrooms.

The instructors encouraged us to create gender-specific environments and lessons. Face-to-face seating is appropriate for girls but will promote conflict in boys; bright lights and strong teacher voices facilitate male learning but will elicit a stress response in females; boys learn best through competitive, dynamic games, but girls flourish in a more collaborative setting. They claimed our classroom structure was the primary cause of behavioral and scholastic problems among male students, and this could be remedied by adjusting our academic climate to be more beneficial to boys.

My “science teacher” brain was perplexed.

I knew plenty of girls who were struggling in school. And if boys are in crisis and our classrooms are structured to be more “girl-friendly,” why are we still seeing significant underrepresentation of women and girls pursuing advanced courses of study or careers in science, technology, engineering, and math? Why are women still underrepresented in politics and positions of power in business?

When I asked one of the presenters, who had years of experience in an all-boys school, he could not answer. Moments after, a few colleagues sent me supportive text messages, urging me to keep speaking up. I hoped that they, too, saw this training for what it was — harmful stereotyping that had no place in public schools.

Yet, of the more than 50 educators gathered with me that day, many of my colleagues were nodding along in agreement with these claims. Even worse, it’s possible that these strategies are actually being implemented in the classroom.

My science classroom contains a broad spectrum of learners. A few students have come from financially advantaged families with parents who are doctors or lawyers, while others are on free or reduced lunch. Some students are athletes. Some like to read. Others play video games or board games. A few love to dance. Some are outgoing; others are shy. None of these traits is determined by gender.

I don’t believe gender determines who will learn better with brighter or softer lights, louder or quieter voices, in collaborative groups or in competitive games. There is no such thing as a best strategy for girls as a group or boys as a group because every student is unique. Besides, every student can benefit from a diverse set of educational activities.

Putting the message out there that boys and girls are very different in how they learn reinforces dangerous sex stereotypes that can limit students’ potential, especially those whose gender or gender identity don’t conform to traditional expectations. That’s why I raised my concerns with the principal of my school, then to the district director of education, and finally — after the administration failed to take action — to the ACLU.

Although it is scary to speak out when those around you are nodding along in agreement, our students — future scientists, business people, artists, leaders — need to have a voice. And if their voices can’t be heard, I will do my best as a teacher to speak on their behalf.

If you are a student or parent whose child has been subjected to these “gender-based” teaching methods in the classroom, the ACLU wants to hear from you. Fill out our intake form here.

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Brendan

I’m a man. The advice given by that seminar based on gender is the complete opposite of how I learned well in school. All of the supposed “girl” learning techniques are actually how I learned best, as a boy and the “boy” techniques are exactly how I don’t learn well. That makes no sense. Different people learn in different ways. Their gender does not impact that. It’s just who they are as people. That’s just reinforcing sexism and the outdated myth of gender stereotypes

Martine Picard

There is something to be said for "hardwireing" based on sex identity assigned at birth.
I was a steadfast nay-sayer UNTILL my son, brought up with dolls and toy kitchens and trains and racetracks, started to demonstrate some serious "boy traits."
But who is to say if that is more nature or nurture?
Certainly not me, a second generation gender non conforming feminist.
Though my outward appearance and household role is typically "woman," many of my "thought patterns" lean toward traits considered to be typically "male."
Perpetuating stereotypes is DANGEROUS at best.
I dont feel that discussion of "typical psychologies" is inherently evil, but to TEACH that "X is for A" and "Y is for B" is wrought with flaws.
The pink and blue polarity is a dangerous advertising construct that limits individuals all across the spectrum of gender identity.
I myself would go on to suggest that this forced polarity has CREATED some of the gender dysphoria that plagues our youth today.
Toxic masculinity and simpering femininity are TAUGHT behaviors that come from forcing individuals into pigeonholed roles that they simply, at heart, don't fit.

Anonymous

I was a tomboy as a child and assumed my daughter would be too if I was careful to provide her with boy toys and girl toys as well as gender-neutral toys. She turned out to be very girly-girl despite my efforts to interest her in trucks and trains. I think it just comes down to personal preferences.

Dr. Timothy Leary

It doesn't matter if the teaching methods are "gender-based" or not as long as the kids are learning.

Anonymous

Good luck with that. I agree with you 100% but many school districts are going to insist (and possibly even teach) that there are "male" and "female" brains and that you can self-identity your gender based on those stereotypes (,while insisting they aren't stereotypes). You might even get fired over it. I do look forward to seeing how the ACLU will reconcile their argument for your case with their arguments for transgender students, though.

Anonymous

I will refrain from expressing any opinion that disagrees with the author, otherwise my comment will not make it through your censors. I hope that the "ACLU" realizes that it has a more restrictive forum for free speech than does Facebook. I will seek to engage in actual discussion there, by necessity. The ACLU is dead letter

Anonymous

I usually disagree with the author and they always publish my comments. It does take a while for them to post the comments, though.

Anonymous

I am glad to hear that, even if it does not exactly refute my overall point: the ACLU censors the comments on the page, thereby limiting speech. In fact, it employs what we could call prior restraint if it were a government. Speech is not free when some else decides whether it is worthy of dissemination. This goes to explain some of the new direction away from free speech and toward acceptable speech, a direction that I assume is a response (or attempt) to additional donations in the age of "resist." If the ACLU won't support free speech because of financial concerns (donations), who will? No one. Free speech is dead. Long live groupthink and the money that supports it.

Alexander

I notice she didn't claim that boys are doing better than girls in K-12 or getting more degrees in higher ed, because they're not. Girls are doing much better in these respects.

Does the ACLU think unequal results are a problem when girls and women are on the winning side, or only when boys and men are, as in the narrow area of STEM?

Would the ACLU be as opposed to a program designed to help girls do better in STEM by introducing more group work on the theory that girls would do better that way?

Anonymous

I cant speak for the ACLU of course, but the author appears to say that a program "designed to help girls do better...by introducing more group work" would be unacceptable as it would reinforce gender roles (or differences, as the author appears to conflate the two) . Once you reject any notion that boys and girls are different, then any differential treatment becomes objectionable. Of course, if the so-called science is quite the opposite of the premises upon which the "one teaching style fits all" theory is based, then the whole thing falls apart and a great disservice has been effected upon certain children in the name of "equality."

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