Typecast, labelled and pigeon-holed, children encounter lop-sided and faulty ideas about what they are supposed to ‘be like’ and ‘do’ from a very early age. From the moment they are born, their worlds are edited, airbrushed, twisted and distorted.
Culturally, children are exposed to images and attitudes that tell them who they are and what identities they should adopt. But many of these influences are damaging and they can seriously obstruct opportunities to learn.
Schools are in the thick of the action and so teachers have a crucial role to play in combating stereotypes to ensure that their experiences of growing up are free from bias, unjust behaviour and discrimination.
Ensuring gender equality in education is a collective enterprise and schools can support inclusion by challenging binary definitions of gender and create an environment of support where gender diversity is normalised. Teachers can promote gender justice and create awareness of injustice.
So what can a school do?
Never judge a book by its cover
All staff should be provided with information on gender terminology and gender basics including the gender spectrum. Sessions should be held through the year to discuss how to create gender inclusive classrooms for students with a variety of gender identities. Sign up for the Gender Equality Charter and show your pledge to pursuing an equality agenda.
2. A Culture Shift
School policies and practices can deeply affect children whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
School uniforms, sports teams and toilets have traditionally been separated in binary fashion but what messages are these giving out to children? Schools need to put a gender lens over their policies before finalising them. Many will need to be challenged and revised although some commentators argue otherwise.
3. Have A ‘Milk’ Mission
A school’s Inclusion and Diversity Policy is crucial that needs revisiting and updating.
Harvey Milk, was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States and he said, “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.”
Does your school policy make it clear that your mission is to empower children by teaching awareness, acceptance and non-violence? Does it celebrate diversity and foster strong family-school-community connections?
4. Create a safe space
Children excel when they are part of a safe and secure environment committed to inclusive practice. A school that lives and breathes diversity will strive to promote difference and reassure children that it is okay to be different. A culture of recognition supports a mindset of acceptance.
5. Be vigilant
Children who are transgender and gender-expansive are among a school’s most vulnerable young people experiencing bullying, harassment, mental health issues, self-harm and suicide at disproportionately high levels. Schools should be alert to any behaviour and victimisation that threatens the wellbeing of others and have protective measures in place.
6. Become a Gender Action School
Gender Action is an award programme which promotes and supports a whole-school approach to challenging stereotypes. This is more than showing a rainbow flag, celebrating LGBT History Month and ticking boxes and jumping through hoops. Gender Action promotes and encourages a whole-school approach to challenging stereotypes and tiered progression levels put gender equality at the heart of a school’s policy and practice
7. Watch Your Language
You might be used to saying “Line up boy, girl, boy, girl,” or having a “boy, girl, boy, girl” seating plan but this just reinforces gender labels in our classrooms. Using binary labels in class is commonplace can be driven for practical reasons but we must be careful with our language choices because we are telling children that there are only two genders. Forget ‘boy- friendly’ lessons. If these engendered rules and systems were applied to adults, we would find that quite odd. Make sure there aren’t ‘girls’ jobs and ‘boys’ jobs.
Rooting out stereotypes needs to start with the very youngest children. Do you feature diversity in books, posters and other workbooks?
The UN’s 2018 Gender Review of the Global Education Monitoring Report says that in order to facilitate gender-responsive teaching, curricula and textbooks should be free from gender bias and promote equality in gender relations. Critical conversations need to be started about how you will create an inclusive LGBT curriculum. See LGBT Scotland for more ideas.
Sexist language is prevalent in schools and society so why not put sexism on the curriculum (see Nottingham Free School are doing) and discuss the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and sexual harassment.
9. Go Drag
Reading can be a real drag for some children so why not do something about it? Drag Queen Story Time aims to capture the imagination and fun of the gender fluidity of childhood, by providing a safe environment, in which children, teachers and parents can encounter LGBTQ+ representation - in a fun and engaging way.
Promote openness and acceptance by giving children the opportunity to interact with a range of role models and people who are different from them to teach them that difference isn’t scary. Let children challenge the macho narrative, be emotionally literate and embrace ‘militant tenderness’
10. Be Proactive
Challenge stereotypes all the way until they are no more. To see how you can encourage conversations about gender in an age-appropriate, positive and supportive way then watch the video by Gender Spectrum.
All schools should be beacons of gender equality committed to equitable quality education and as teachers we can explicitly model respect for diversity as a fundamental part of our work and be innovators, activists and champions of change.
The aim of addressing gender stereotypes should be to emphasise the existence of difference is normal and actually there is norm.
Eteach supports http://www.educateandcelebrate.org/ - a wonderful resource site to enable inclusion in your place of learning
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is Eteach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.