Tote bags and tightropes: navigating feminism in education

By Cayt Mirra

Cayt Mirra is a secondary English teacher and freelance writer. She is the Creative Director of Femagogy Zine, an online zine for teachers and feminists. She published her debut novel, The Blood Apothecary, in 2015. You can see more of her work at www.caytmirra.com and www.femagogyzine.com 

 

I have a tote bag with the word ‘Feminist’ on it, that I am afraid to use at work. I work in a government secondary school as an English teacher, and despite the supposed ‘left agenda’ taking over schools, I worry that this tote bag is too political, or somehow inappropriate to use when I am shaping the minds of young people.

But honestly, I don’t think being a feminist is in any way controversial, nor should I have to hide it. Because being a feminist in the classroom informs my practice in important ways. It means being aware of the language used in my classroom, and challenging students who use the phrase ‘like a girl’ as an insult. It means ensuring both male and female students have a voice during class discussions. It can also mean understanding that for many students, these binary ideas of gender and sexuality do not work; it can mean supporting LGBTQI students to feel safe and happy at school.

Curriculum is not always supportive of young women. It is crucial that there are teachers who will argue for female representation in the curriculum. In English, this ‘means studying texts written by women and featuring female protagonists. In Science and Humanities, it means learning about women who have accomplished things in their fields. When teaching medieval history to a year 8 class, I was questioned by some male students about why we were doing a unit on women in medieval society. Where was the unit on men in medieval society? Why did we have to learn specifically about women? I referred them to the units we had completed on knights, the church and the king. It hadn’t occurred to them that all of these units focused on men. Boys are so used to seeing themselves overrepresented in the media texts that they consume that they find the study of women jarring.

Feminism is also often lacking in school policy, and in the basic processes and procedures of day-to-day school life. The school I work at was so used to having a boy school captain and a girl school captain, that one year when only girls applied, they went around shoulder-tapping the boys to see who was interested in being the ‘boy captain’. It never occurred to them to have two girls who were actually passionate about the position. That’s right – we have gender quotas to make sure we have enough young men in leadership. Our school also runs a debutante ball, as do many secondary schools. Aside from the fact that these balls are an archaic meat market, they also require the female students to invite a male partner. I like to think that if a student asked to bring a same-sex partner that they would be allowed, but the fact is they should never have to ask. It should not be up to students to challenge heteronormative practices; these structures should be challenged and dismantled by staff to make our schools inclusive.

I care about all of my students. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do my job properly. I want all of my students to grow up to be happy and safe, and to make positive contributions to society. To me, for this to happen it is imperative that they have an understanding of gender stereotypes and gender inequality. It is important that the boys understand their privileged position in society, and that the girls understand that they deserve to have every one of those same privileges. I don’t spend my days trying to recruit students to some feminist cause, but my feminism certainly helps to form the lens through which I teach. Ultimately, I want all of my students to see themselves as humans who deserve to be safe and happy, and to view all other people in the same way.

Sometimes it can feel like I am walking a feminist tightrope in my work as a teacher. A teacher is not an activist. As such, it is not my place to preach to students my beliefs about the importance of legal and safe abortion, or my views on rape culture (although it is arguably my job to challenge students to think about these things for themselves). It is, however, absolutely in my job description to ensure that the content being taught in classrooms is inclusive of young women. It is entirely part of my job to teach students to treat each other with respect, and to unpack damaging gender stereotypes. And it is also my responsibility to challenge policies that are not inclusive of all students. 

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