Teaching and Testosterone

After a Summer of teaching English abroad, Laura Fleming acknowledges how students will always respond differently to the masculine and the feminine.

For as long as I can remember, my mother always used to tell me (much to my horror) that I’d make a ‘lovely primary school teacher’. Whether my fierce aversion to the teaching profession came from a rejection of anything I perceived to be traditionally feminine, or simply a fear of becoming my mother, I was adamant that any sort of a career in teaching was not for me.

Last year I came across a summer job teaching English in Italy. Although part of me dreaded the thought of teaching, I dreaded the thought of an entire summer in Ireland more, and so off I went. To my surprise I really enjoyed teaching, and after an idyllic summer of Italian sun, incredibly generous host families, and wonderful (female) co-workers, my distaste for teaching began to fade. This year, I returned to the programme and while most aspects of the blissful experience of the year before remained the same, I found myself working and teaching alongside men for the first time. In six weeks, I worked with three men in total, and while only two of said men were completely insufferable, nothing prepared me for the frustration I and my fellow female teachers felt when we realised that the men among us seemed to do significantly less work than us and yet receive noticeably more praise.

Initially, I dismissed it as a one-off. Perhaps this particular man emitted some sort of mystic energy that allowed him to win over the hearts of middle-aged principals, exhausted parents and children ranging in ages from 5 to 15, and thus his undue credit was as a result of something specific to him, rather than the effects of a system which actively works against women. Until it happened again. And again. Every time I worked with a man, it was the same.  They rarely contributed to any sort of planning or organising of activities, but simply showed up, often ignored the curriculum and generally swanned around doing as they pleased while our directors, the students, and even their parents looked on with adoration.

One particularly infuriating afternoon, I spent my break planning a simple activity with a strong language focus and attainable learning goals, only to have it cast aside the second a man walked in and uttered the words; ‘lads, will we just play sport like?’ I turned to the healthiest form of self-expression I knew of to vent my frustrations – Twitter, and texting my mother. I found multiple other female teachers at various points in their careers who expressed the same frustrations. Principals, parents, and even students who seemed to instinctively favour male teachers, co-workers who got away with ignoring curriculums, admired by their students and hence their parents, while their female counterparts were scrutinised by parents and disrespected by students. The words ‘craic’ and ‘banter’ were thrown around a lot, something distinctive to male teachers which we, as women, naturally lack (of course, how could we forget that women can’t be funny?). One of my own co-workers even told me that, while teaching, she tends to ‘act like a man’ because she finds that the students respond better to it. My mother simply responded with ‘I feel your pain’ (thanks, Mum).

But even as my frustration grew, I noticed distinctions in how the children acted towards those around them. I found that generally the younger students of 5 or 6 tended not to gravitate towards men over women, however the older they got, the more they seemed to favour male authority. I began to wonder just how young we start to perceive, and even treat men and women differently. How young we start to be drawn towards masculinity as something positive and femininity as negative, lesser, weaker. After all, wasn’t I guilty of it myself in my initial rejection of teaching?

While researching for this article, I googled ‘male teachers’. Every single result was an article on ‘the benefit of male teachers’, ‘why we need male teachers’ and even ‘why male teachers are better than their female counterparts’. Comparatively, when googling ‘female engineers’ the next suggestion was ‘female engineers are hot’. It’s amazing how women aren’t taken seriously even in professions we supposedly dominate. Even in fields that are oh-so ‘difficult’ for men due to their crippling fear of the feminine, we are seen as lesser, to the extent that even children unknowingly learn and perpetuate this.

Low numbers of men enter into female-dominated professions because they’re afraid of being perceived as feminine. Low numbers of women enter into male-dominated professions because they’re the few that can. That are deemed worthy. That defy odds and statistics and, even when they make it there, are discredited by those around them. You would think, that in this day and age, it would at least be beginning to change, but seeing the difference in children’s responses to men and women in positions of authority, and how the disparity only seems to grow as they do, it makes me fear for just how far we have left to go.