I watch it happening before my inquisitive eyes. Girls sitting in a middle school classroom silent, unwilling to speak up when they know the answer, unwilling to correct the boys when it’s obvious they’re frustrated with the continuous outbursts or immature fart noises. They sit there. They follow. Some giggle. Why?
It’s rare when I find her the girl that will correct a boy, debate him, or ask him to stop his disruptive behavior. However, girls have no problem correcting each other which I find fascinating. From what I’ve witnessed as a sub in several different middle schools throughout the years is that boys in a middle school classroom speak out more and get the most attention from their peers.
I began questioning my teaching style. Was I calling on the boys more? Was I paying more attention to them in order to get them to listen? Did I have higher expectations for the girls and praise the boys too much when they answered a question? Was I not calling on the girls because few raised their hands while many boys craved attention more than fearing a wrong answer? What could I do to support the girls in the classroom setting?
I thought back to my middle school days sitting in math class, silent, turning beet red when one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Jones, called on me. The fourth-grade girl who had broken her foot while playing football with the neighborhood boys had been replaced by a quiet girl who spent hours with a curling iron and blue eyeshadow.
Was it my teaching or was it lessons learned by girls in our society? When we call our girls princesses what message are we sending? It’s ingrained in me to tell little girls they look beautiful. I have to make a conscious decision not to say it and to ask instead, what they’re reading, what’s their favorite sport and where they would want to travel one day.
I thought that things had changed since my middle school days. They haven’t changed enough. What I’m seeing in our schools is we still have a long way to go with teaching our girls that they are equal to boys, that their ideas and what they have to say is just as important. We need to allow them to feel as though they can make mistakes, that while boys may be louder with deeper voices it doesn’t mean they have to sit back and stay silent. They can debate and challenge a boy just as they do other girls. And the thing is it’s not the boys that are telling the girls to stay quiet. The boys listen when a brave girl speaks up. It’s the girls who are tough on other girls and tougher yet on themselves. Some girls have no problem speaking their truth to each other, but when it comes to speaking their truth to boys over and over and over again I see them sit in silence even when they know they’re right.
I believe the first step in helping our girls find their voices is in asking ourselves the tough questions. What have we done intentionally and unintentionally as adults to teach girls to stay quiet? How do we truly feel when we see a successful male versus a successful female? Just like the middle school classroom are women harder on each other and more willing to follow a male simply because it’s what we’ve been taught from the beginning? How responsible are we as women for teaching our girls to stay silent? Princesses look beautiful, find their prince and live happily ever after. Princes grow up to be kings and rule the land. When we understand how our bias effects the girls around us then we’ll be able to change our behavior and help our girls find their equally important voice.