Make A Man Out of You

When I began teaching college students, I realized: this is what it’s like to be a man.  I was a woman, and now I’m a man.

All right: this is what it’s like to do work that has historically been done by people of privilege (teach college) instead of by women (teaching people younger than 18).

Will #metoo ever get to teachers?

In two of the schools where I taught high school, I was sexually harassed by students.

At the other, I taught older students, and administrators were willing to stand up for me when students were disrespectful.  They were not willing to do this for all of the teachers.

The solution to this was that I have talks with the student and the counselor, talks that neither the counselor (who was great) nor I had time to attend.

The counselor also refused to hold repeated meetings to discuss why a student was harassing or threatening me if the student would refused to participate, or did not follow through with anything from a first meeting.

Thus, students who talked about my body, asked about my sex life, or physically threatened me, were my problem.

I was not reaching out to them to build relationships.

The bigger problem was that those students, mostly male, were taught a lesson about sexual harassment.

Teacher friends of mine have their asses grabbed, have students yell at them, “She’s a cunt!”  Have students talk about their bodies.  Especially difficult when your job is to stand in front of people.  Every day.  All day long.

Many of those people are no longer teachers, though I considered them to be talented and thoughtful and much-needed.

A decade ago, I showed up in a public high school classroom.  I had spent two years studying education.  I was expected to screw it up.

It was repeatedly demanded of me that I prove what I was doing.  Why aren’t your objectives on the board?  Where are your lesson plans?  Why are you doing that?  Why aren’t the students doing this, or that, or that?  

A great deal of my job, a large percentage of my mind and my time, was spent on trying to defend what I was doing, rather than actually doing it.

I was also expected to be kind and friendly and sweet to all your students, even when their behavior was abusive.  If you show them you care about them, they will work for you.  Sometimes that’s true.

As a teaching assistant at a university, with no teaching background necessary, it is expected that I will do well, do my best, and make my work environment comfortable and healthy for me.  Don’t accept late work.  It’ll just drive you crazy.

Teaching at a university has been a job for educated men.

After I am done teaching my college students, I have TWO DAYS to think about how it went, and what to do next time.  I get to spend some of that time reading theory and stories about what might be helpful for my students.

If my college students express emotional distress, I am to refer them to mental health professionals.  I am not trained for that.

If most pre-12th teachers were to refer a kid to a mental health professional, it would take between days and never.

Days for a kid are years.

I have 36 papers to grade, instead of 80.  It is awkward for me to talk about grading multiple drafts of a paper.  A university colleague says, “How do you have time for that?  That’s so generous of you?” How did I have time to grade 80 papers?  I didn’t.   I read fast.

No one throws things in my classroom.  And no one shows up to attack me because I can’t figure out who is throwing things, and why, or how to stop them.

At my most dysfunctional school, the principal moved me from freshmen to seniors.  They hired a man for the freshman spot.  He quit.  They hired another man.  He quit, too.  Those kids had five teachers in one year.  None of the three women quit.  (One moved, one was fired, and I stayed.)

Teaching college, no one talks over me.  I get to say what I want to say, what I’ve learned I want to say over many years of studying literature, writing, and life.  What does it do to your view of what you deserve when no one will listen to you, year after year?  And when you are told that is your fault.  You’re not engaging the students.

No one has told me I don’t care about my students.  In fact, they have told me, don’t do too much.  You have to keep your sanity.

My college students, all freshmen, wrote literacy narratives, and many of them wrote about influential teachers.  I read several essays about wonderful, inspirational teachers.  And several that suggested none of their teachers cared except this one.

How was your teacher treated?  By administrators, by students?  We know that she (before middle school, almost definitely a she) may suffer significant financial stress from low pay, lack of cost-of-living raises, and spending money on  basic supplies to do her job.

I am encouraged and heartened by teachers’ unions growing power, and the possibly the pendulum may swing to give teachers more security and respect.  It is not nearly, nearly enough.

Students are not employees.  They are learning and growing, and making mistakes, of course.

But without a strong system for handling teacher abuse and harassment, one that both protects teachers and educates students, our schools perpetuate cycles of misogyny and abuse.

Important, though aside, asides:

Probably a woman?  About 70% of the time, but higher in preschool (90%), which is also, I hate to tell you, school.

Teaching assistants are on a nine-month contract, so they can work at another job during the summer, and they receive tuition for their courses.  Also, though this is another post, at my school, the GTAs are unionized (which is very unusual) and they have gotten me/us a raise, thank you, union!

How much teaching is done by teaching assistants? About 40%.

Teaching assistants are not adjuncts.  I haven’t been an adjunct, but I believe they are treated as if they all have husbands who make a lot of money, and their job is a charming hobby, like Japanese flower arranging, although they may actually be people who need to buy groceries and go to the doctor and want to know if they will have a job next month.

Image: detail of “Classroom in the Emerson School for Girls,” Southworth and Hawes, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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