I am a tough teacher; I don’t mean to be, but I tend to throw the class into various, open-ended activities and let people explore. This is really shocking, I think, to students who have come up in the American educational system in K-12, where testing is so common, and where educational programs stress working to specific expectations. The only expectation I really have is that you explore, and usually in exploration, concepts become mastered along the way. I am a chaos muppet, and I think life, and that includes life in a classroom, should be full of adventure, laughing, experiments, gambles, and surprises. With those come failures and setbacks.
This means that order muppets at times struggle with me and I them. I try, when I see an order muppet struggling with the chaos that enters the room with me, to be more linear, but at some point, that’s like asking me to be thin. I just do not see things in hierarchies or lines, and my attempts to order them are often more disastrous than just letting them make order out of the information and experiences themselves.
What breaks my heart is the difference I see among men and women in my classes. These are generalizations, and they don’t apply to everybody, but I see real differences in gender in the way my students react to failures and setbacks in our explorations. My male students in general take it in stride, confident that they can and will do ok, or they blame me when they become frustrated. They externalize it. A disproportionate number of my female students internalize these moments as assessments of their capabilities. They worry they don’t have the skills or background knowledge to take the class. But nobody does! That means everybody does. The class goes where the muse takes us. You can’t plan or prepare for that. You just have to trust in your abilities, and that is a bigger stretch for some of my female students than it should be.
I want to tell them that they can do anything, that it’s normal to feel thwarted and frustrated, that these things are just setbacks, not indicators of what they can do in general, only indicators of what they did in a moment. I want to hug them and tell them that anybody who made them feel incapable is full of shit, and that they are magical and awesome and will do things that surprise themselves in amazing ways.
Talk, however, is cheap, and I don’t know how much of what I say ever hits home, and it feels corny. Mostly, I just want my class and the experiments we run to be a playground/training ground, and for all that to build them up…not add to their beliefs about deficiencies. Students have built-in grade-A bullshit detectors, and they know when you are condescending to them or plying them with easy success.
I also know about the many, many professional penalties I have paid for not hiding my intelligence, for not massaging the egos of the men around and above me, for failing to reassure them that I am at their god-damn service, and for refusing to apologize for being right, or more original and capable than they were. I have spent years being punished for this and internalizing that punishment to punish myself, too, and it took me a very, very long time to see my fierce intelligence as magnificence in addition to the reason that lots and lots of middling dudes just aren’t going to like me. I spent far, far too many years trying to fit in with people, trying to be good, when their conception of good demanded that I be less than I am.
I don’t know what to do. I know what awaits in the world for smart, confident young women, and much of it reacts to them with unmitigated hate and an organized effort to tear these young women down. I had one boss who told me he “hated my confidence that I could learn just about anything” while he was actively exploiting that capability and representing it as his own.
I don’t want these young women punished the way I have been, nor do I want them hiding when they should be free to fly.
A friend bought me this StoryPeople piece from Brian Andreas years ago. It hangs in my house. Maybe I should take it to my office and hang it in a really prominent place.