Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.
I’ve had the first-day-of-school jitters every year since I can remember. Seven first days under my belt and it never gets better. If I think my nerves are bad as I meet my students, though, I have to remind myself that my students’ nerves are even worse as they meet their teachers.
Because of this, I always try to make sure my students know that I believe in equality for every one of my students, no matter what. To do this, I go to great efforts to set up my classroom as a safe space — a judgment-free zone, if you will. When students know I believe in treating all students equally, they are noticeably more willing to learn, which is, after all, my goal.
In order to set up my class as a safe space, I first make it clear that disrespectful behavior or language will not be tolerated. I always take a stand against using the words “retarded” or “gay” to mean something they don’t like right at the beginning of the school year. This helps students — especially those who are gay or who have a learning disability — realize that I’m on their side, and I want them to be treated equally in the classroom. We also discuss what other words are offensive to people, such as “gyp” or “lame.” After we have these discussions, when students slip and use these words inappropriately, I use it as a teachable moment to review what we’ve discussed rather than a punishable offense.
Secondly, I always try to model respect for students’ opinions. Teaching students how to respectfully respond to the opinions of their peers while avoiding ad hominem attacks is not only important for teaching respect and tolerance, but it is also a valuable life skill. Creating a classroom environment that encourages a respectful exchange of opinions will not only help students learn from each other, it will help them learn tolerance for others’ opinions outside the classroom.
Finally, I strive to get to know all of my students. Every time I have a minute to spare, I choose a student to talk to. If that isn’t an option because we’ve been so busy in class, I encourage students to write about themselves or let their personalities shine through in their projects and papers. Then, I am sure to respond positively. When students know you accept them for who they are, they will feel empowered.
Starting the school year with equality in mind in these ways is especially important for the young women in class. Very often, girls discourage themselves from speaking either because of their particular school-related anxieties or because society has taught them that women who have opinions are unattractive or undesirable. Helping young women realize that their voices and their opinions are important not only encourages them to speak up in class, but to share their voices outside of school, as well.
Creating a safe space for students in your classroom can go a long way toward encouraging students to practice tolerance, too. When classmates are more tolerant of each other, this can motivate students to stay in school and ensure that they know they have an ally in their teachers, even when they feel the rest of the world is against them.
Photo Credit: Lel4nd