Can Women Actually Teach Students? // Keely Hirsch
Can women actually teach students? The answer of course, is yes, but due to our patriarchal society, it is much harder for women to teach students than it is for men.
Recently, I was awarded a teaching fellowship from my university to teach master’s level counseling psychology students throughout the academic year. When awarded this highly sought after and competitive fellowship, I prided myself on my abilities to educate and foster an environment where students could learn and grow as clinicians. However, upon finishing my first semester of teaching, I was surprised at how much my identity as a woman influenced my teaching experience.
As I began my first semester of teaching, I was paired with a male faculty member to co-teach a Research Methods course. While most students in my PsyD program shudder when they think about SPSS, I became excited! I love analyzing data both qualitatively and quantitatively. In addition, I had a great relationship with my co-instructor as he has served as committee member for my dissertation and a great mentor. Prior to the course, I made sure to brush up on my research knowledge and make sure I felt confident and competent. On the first day of class, I gave the first presentation, which went great, and I felt like the students were excited to dig into research!
Things started off going really well. However, as the weeks went on, I noticed that students were asking me questions much more often than they were my co-instructor. I initially believed that it was because I was taking the time to make sure the students really understood the material. But I soon noticed that even after I answered a question, there would be a very specific follow-up question that felt almost attacking. I began to feel incompetent and insecure in my teaching abilities. During our weekly meeting, I brought up my concerns to my co-instructor. He explained that students are trying to fit the information into their own world of understanding, so questions might feel challenging in their nature. I felt a little relieved, but during the next couple classes, I noticed that many of the students were acting oppositional and defiant during my portion of the class: they were not participating during in-class activities and would make sarcastic remarks while I was lecturing. I decided to blame it on the busyness of the semester and students feeling “crispy”.
A few weeks later, I went to a presentation on developing classroom dynamics. One of the most salient parts of this presentation was the aspect of power. The presenter, a feminist, spoke about French and Raven’s (1959) Five Forms of Power. The five forms include: legitimate power, referent power, expert power, reward power, and coercive power. After her explanation of these types of powers, the conversation quickly shaped into a discussion of how our aspects of identity interact with these forms of power to enhance or detract from the amount of power we use. She explained that gender is something that strongly interacts with power when teaching. She noted that men are less likely to be challenged and are given the benefit of the doubt when teaching. Women, however, are more likely to be challenged, questioned, and doubted. As she was saying this, I was immediately hit with a wave of disappointment. I finally had some power as a teacher (that I was planning to use for good, of course) but it felt like it was slowly being chipped away.
After learning this information, I decided to explore my newfound knowledge. I asked women faculty members what their experiences of being a woman-teacher were like. Many referred to examples of opposition and being challenged (mostly by male students) in the classroom. Some shared that they used tactics, related to male stereotypes, to avoid these behaviors. For instance, some instructors were less warm to students and more assertive/directive, taking on the “bitch” role. One instructor laughed as she shared that she will wear high heels to appear taller (taking on a male trait). After hearing some of these behaviors, I was disheartened to learn that my pure and sweet view of teaching was quickly becoming soiled.
As I think about ways to avoid my power being stripped away for being a woman, I truly feel helpless. My first thoughts were to take on the “bitch” role, be less understanding and more demanding, and wear higher heels (maybe not). However, these aspects do not feel genuine to me. What does feel genuine is educating students about our patriarchal society and advocating for women. While I cannot continuously preach to my students about marginalized and oppressed populations, I can use my power of coercion, such as giving them bad grades, to make them understand. Just kidding! I can use my passion for educating to teach students about the negative aspects of living in a patriarchal society in a useful and meaningful way.
Written by Keely Hirsch