In my anthropology class this semester, we have discussed and clarified the following terms: sex and gender. Sex is the biological differences between males and females, one is born male or female. Gender identity how people internalize, act, attitudes, and expectations associated with gender. This is conveyed through ways in which we act, dress, walk, speak, activities and attitudes. Gender is culturally constructed.
I think it is important to understand these two terms and to not confuse them, as it is often easy to do. When we see our students, we have to be accepting of them for who they are and who they present themselves as to us. I feel it is our responsibility to educate them and engage them in discussions about gender and acceptance of everyone, even if they are different than you are.
I’d like to share with you the opening story from the following blog, One teacher’s approach to preventing gender bullying in a classroom found at Together for Jackson County Kids.
“It’s Okay to be Neither,” By Melissa Bollow Tempel
Alie arrived at our 1st-grade classroom wearing a sweatshirt with a hood. I asked her to take off her hood, and she refused. I thought she was just being difficult and ignored it. After breakfast we got in line for art, and I noticed that she still had not removed her hood. When we arrived at the art room, I said: “Allie, I’m not playing. It’s time for art. The rule is no hoods or hats in school.”
She looked up with tears in her eyes and I realized there was something wrong. Her classmates went into the art room and we moved to the art storage area so her classmates wouldn’t hear our conversation. I softened my tone and asked her if she’d like to tell me what was wrong.
“My ponytail,” she cried. “Can I see?” I asked.
She nodded and pulled down her hood. Allie’s braids had come undone overnight and there hadn’t been time to redo them in the morning, so they had to be put back in a ponytail. It was high up on the back of her head like those of many girls in our class, but I could see that to Allie it just felt wrong. With Allie’s permission, I took the elastic out and re-braided her hair so it could hang down.
“How’s that?” I asked. She smiled. “Good,” she said and skipped off to join her friends in art.
‘Why Do You Look Like a Boy?’
Allison was biologically a girl but felt more comfortable wearing Tony Hawk long-sleeved T-shirts, baggy jeans, and black tennis shoes. Her parents were accepting and supportive. Her mother braided her hair in cornrows because Allie thought it made her look like Will Smith’s son, Trey, in the remake of The Karate Kid. She preferred to be called Allie. The first day of school, children who hadn’t been in Allie’s class in kindergarten referred to her as “he.”
I didn’t want to assume I knew how Allie wanted me to respond to the continual gender mistakes, so I made a phone call home and Allie’s mom put me on speakerphone.
“Allie,” she said, “Ms. Melissa is on the phone. She would like to know if you want her to correct your classmates when they say you are a boy, or if you would rather that she just doesn’t say anything.”
Allie was shy on the phone. “Um … tell them that I am a girl,” she whispered.
The next day when I corrected classmates and told them that Allie was a girl, they asked her a lot of questions that she wasn’t prepared for: “Why do you look like a boy?” “If you’re a girl, why do you always wear boys’ clothes?” Some even told her that she wasn’t supposed to wear boys’ clothes if she was a girl. It became evident that I would have to address gender directly in order to make the classroom environment more comfortable for Allie and to squash the gender stereotypes that my 1st graders had absorbed in their short lives.
This story of Allie shows that while her sex is female, how she chooses to identify herself, her gender identity is male. This story is a great example for the need to teach children about gender from an early age. Discussions can happen at any age and they are important for making students feel accepted for who they are as a person. When children are younger, they may be more accepting, they may care more about having a friend and someone to play with, as opposed to whether that person is a girl or boy and how they appear to others. However, with influences around us everyday, stereotypes media and advertising, there is a lot of pressure applied to youth in terms of their gender identity matching their sex. Everyday we see and are reminded of how society and Western culture defines boys and girls, men and women. Males and boys are ideally “tough, strong, athletic, masculine, playing with cars and Lego, they play with other boys.” Females and girls are ideally, “nice, helpful, house work, caregivers, organized, they like the colour pink, play with dolls, play house, and spend time with other girls”. These are just a few ways in which we divide men/boys and female/girls. The question becomes – Why do you have to be one way and not the other?
At a young age you can begin to teach students that it is okay to be who they are. You could start by introducing the topic of gender and acceptance through looking at the students and having them describe themselves. Then, you can look to toys and clothes. Start questioning what makes us a boy and what makes us a girl? Discuss and be open with your students. Then move on to share that girls can play with cars and dinosaurs, just as boys can play with dolls and dress-up clothing – for example. In doing this, you are beginning to break down stereotypes that society has and you are moving towards inclusion. They don’t have to fit into one category or the other – students can be who they choose to be.
Other ways in our classrooms we can be inclusive are:
- When having students line up, not dividing them into boys or girls. You can use favourite foods, movies, colours – if you like summer line up here, and if you like winter, line up there.
- Make accommodations for a neutral bathroom if a student is uncomfortable using either a boys’ washroom or a girls’ washroom.
- In the classroom, address students not as boys and girls, but as students, grade ___’s as this allows for you to include all students.
- Read books showing students that it really is okay to be different and to educate them about the negatives of bullying someone if they are different from you.
- Our job is to teach students, not to judge them.
Most importantly, celebrate students for who they are and show one another that we are all different!