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Talk by Professor Carrie Paechter, Goldsmiths, University of London

Teachers’ behaviour towards girls and boys
Paris, 5 December 2008

Despite some thirty years of equal opportunities legislation and considerable international research into gender issues in schools, teachers still treat girls and boys differently. In this brief talk I am going to outline some of the ways in which this happens.

Teachers treat boys and girls as separate and very different groups
Throughout the schooling system, teachers behave as though boys and girls are very different in behaviour, aptitude, and attitudes. This affects how they treat them in various ways. Teachers of young children are likely to refer to gendered groups when praising or reprimanding, for example by saying ‘All the girls are sitting nicely’, or ‘The boys are being very noisy’. They also expect boys and girls to want to learn and to socialise in separate groups. While this does reflect dominant social norms in early years classrooms, where children tend to stay in single-sex groups by choice, it also reinforces young children’s stereotyped views about appropriate friendships and play companions, by taking this segregation for granted. Teachers further reinforce stereotypes of gender difference by using the threat of being seated with the other sex as a disciplinary measure, for example by threatening misbehaving boys with being made to work with girls. This tendency to treat boys and girls as different, clearly differentiated groups, underpins much of teachers’ unintended discriminatory behaviour.

Teachers expect boys and girls to behave differently
Teachers expect boys and girls of all ages to behave in different and gendered ways. Research investigating teachers’ perceptions of young children discovered stark differences in how girls and boys were seen:
Early years educators described girls and boys in very different ways. Words and phrases used to describe girls included ‘chatty’, ‘eager to please’, ‘interested in neat presentation’, ‘calm and attentive’. Boys were described as ‘noisy’, ‘boisterous’, ‘find it hard to sit still’ ‘physical’, ‘competitive’, ‘interested in exploring things’ and ‘liking sports’. This finding suggests that the majority of the educators involved in this piece of research hold the view that girls and boys are not only different from each other but also opposites. (Browne 2004: 106)
Teachers’ perception of boys as being active, noisy, and unable to sit still means that boys are more often assumed to be causing classroom disruption, and therefore are punished more.

Behaviour that is expected of and condoned in boys is often interpreted differently when it comes from girls. These interpretations are also affected by the children’s ethnicities. For example, African-Caribbean girls are stereotyped as assertive, while South East Asian girls are seen as generally passive. This leads to difficulties for girls who do not conform to such stereotypes, particularly by being more assertive than expected.
Recent work indicates that when girls do not conform to conventional gender behaviours they invite harsh criticism from teachers. In a study by Reay (2001) teachers spoke of girls who were misbehaving as ‘a bad influence’, ‘scheming little madams’ and ‘spiteful’ whilst boys’ similar behaviours were seen as ‘mucking about’. Similarly, Skelton (2002) found that those girls who adopted behaviours not associated with being ‘properly feminine’ were described as ‘pushy’. (Skelton and Francis 2003: 8-9)

Both teachers and children have strongly differentiated understandings of how boys and girls behave in social and classroom situations. They see boys as silly and selfish, girls as sensible and selfless, and girls are consequently expected to control, manage, or make allowances for boys’ behaviour. Being expected to be both silly and selfish allows some boys to disrupt mixed sex groups by refusing to co-operate unless they get their way. This is exacerbated by the expectation of girls to be both sensible and selfless, and therefore to enable group activity to continue by giving in to the boys’ demands. Girls are also expected to take on a sub-teacher role, both helping the teacher to police the boys’ behaviour and supporting boys in their learning. Because girls are seen as sensible they are also more likely to be asked to do ‘housekeeping’ tasks to help the teacher, such as clearing up equipment or running errands, while the boys are able to continue with their work or play activities.

In the UK, this sub-teacher role has been further developed by a policy adopted by some secondary schools of seating children in boy/girl pairs. This is intended to break up friendship groups, to force the children to concentrate on their work, and to use the girls to support the boys and control their behaviour. One study found that British working-class girls also tended to follow their teachers in interpreting boys’ disruptive behaviour as being the result of individual difficulties and therefore in need of care and consideration, which they expected to have to provide.

Because boys are seen as less focused and more poorly behaved, teaching is frequently geared towards dealing with this behaviour. This has two results: first, classrooms become increasingly geared towards what teachers believe are boys’ interests and ways of learning; and, second, both boys and girls both conform to and reinforce such expectations. Teachers’ perceptions of boys’ and girls’ behaviour are clearly understood by children and used by them to judge what they are likely to get away with. Children believe that teachers have differential expectations of boys’ and girls’ behaviour, the quality of their written work, and the reasons for which they might be punished. This makes teachers’ gendered beliefs self-reinforcing, as the majority of children keep themselves out of trouble by conforming to teachers’ expectations. This means, for example, that because  both boys and girls know that boys are not expected to sit as still as girls are, girls are likely to be physically less active than boys in order to keep out of trouble.

Teachers expectations of boys’ and girls’ behaviour also affect how they work with children in the classroom. For example, they  give boys whom they consider to be disruptive more chances to contribute in class, allowing them to dominate oral work, and they are also more likely to praise these children for what is taken for granted as normal good behaviour in others. For example, one study found that less well-behaved African-Caribbean boys who were considered by staff to be particularly troublesome, were repeatedly praised for good behaviour as if it were unusual or unexpected, thus drawing attention to teachers’ belief that these boys were naughty or unruly. Because boys in general are seen as demanding and difficult, they are allowed to take up more space in classrooms and playgrounds, and are given more teacher time and attention. This can affect relationships between teachers and students at a very basic level: for example, teachers are more likely to remember boys’ names. Teachers of young children also see boys as needing to deal with competition and aggression by taking part in superhero play. This allows them to dominate play space with demonstrations of aggressive and combative masculinity, limiting the play possibilities of girls and less assertive boys.

In order to pacify disruptive boys, teachers try to gear the classroom atmosphere to what they perceive as their interests. For example, some male teachers develop and foster a ‘laddish’ masculinity around shared sporting interests, which involves joking about sports with boys while teasing and marginalising girls. Researchers in Australia found that such overtly sexist attitudes were fostered by the use of single-sex teaching groups as an anti-sexist measure: because the innovation was overtly introduced to support girls, boys-only groups taught by men sometimes became centres of resistance in which dominant forms of masculinity were celebrated, for example through shared sexist jokes.

Competition is associated with masculinity, and this is encouraged in different ways both by some teachers and by the schooling system as a whole. The increased emphasis on testing in national and state curricula means that such approaches are almost inescapable in some countries, but they are also fostered by some teachers because they think boys prefer them. Boys use competitiveness with each other in order to maintain self-confidence, so a competitive classroom atmosphere reinforces this in the more able or successful.  However, while such approaches are enjoyed by some high-achieving boys, they disadvantage both girls, who generally prefer more co-operative approaches, and less able boys, who are discouraged by failure, and turn to other ways to demonstrate their masculinity, such as being overtly disruptive. Furthermore, the high value given to the displays of intellectual prowess more often conducted by highly articulate middle-class boys allows these boys to challenge the teacher and dominate other children through a sophisticated use of language to control social interactions. Such intellectual challenges to teacher authority are not usually tolerated or encouraged in girls, particularly in primary schooling.

Teachers expect boys and girls to respond to different pedagogic and curricular approaches
Because teachers see boys and girls as fundamentally different, they tend to provide a differentiated curriculum and use different pedagogic approaches. Unfortunately, this tends to reinforce, rather than challenge, gender stereotypes, because teachers tell students that this is what they are doing, thus giving them the message that girls and boys are fundamentally different. In the UK and Australia, where there have recently been a number of experiments with single-sex classes in co-educational schools, these practices have been shown to lead to a restricted curriculum for both sexes. Because teachers bring to the situation stereotypical assumptions about what boys and girls prefer and the ways in which they best learn, boys tend to be given more hands-on activities, while girls are given a less exploratory pedagogy but a wider range of curriculum content. For example, a British study found that boys were not introduced to the romance genre in the English classroom, and girls were given less complex explanations in single-sex technology lessons.
This differentiation is particularly strong in vocational courses, which are more often taken up by working-class than middle-class students. For example, in the United States:
Female students make up 96% of the students enrolled in Cosmetology, 87% of the students enrolled in Child Care courses, and 86% of the students enrolled in courses that prepare them to be Health Assistants in every region of the country. Male students, on the other hand, comprise 94% of the student body in training programs for plumbers and electricians, 93% of the students studying to be welders or carpenters, and 92% of those studying automotive technologies. (National Women's Law Center 2002: 4)
Teachers of vocational subjects have been found to be the most conservative regarding gender of all teacher groups, which makes vocational classes particularly important arenas for reinforcing gender stereotypes. Vocational education remains strongly gender-segregated, even in the Nordic countries, where principles of gender equality are otherwise well established, and in the former East Germany, where  gender divisions in vocational choices have been exacerbated since unification. This has serious implications for the future occupational choices and opportunities for both sexes, but is particularly problematic for girls, as the vocational courses they tend to follow are often shorter and lead to lower-status and frequently much worse paid employment. Some vocational courses, particularly those for traditionally female occupations, are highly gender stereotypical in their content. An extreme version of this is the focus on female attractiveness in Korean commercial high schools, but there is evidence of lower-level gender stereotyping in the European and North American contexts.

Teachers tend to treat high performance as being differently caused in boys and girls
Teachers value high performance in both genders but see it as differently caused in boys and girls. Boys are seen as doing well because they are naturally able, and, indeed, poor performance is sometimes overlooked because a boy is considered naturally clever but lazy. Girls, on the other hand, are seen as being successful due to consistent hard work, and where they do not succeed, this is put down to lack of ability.  This is because teachers tend to equate assertiveness with ability, while at the same time they encourage and permit greater assertiveness from boys than from girls. Girls are not expected to be assertive in school: they are encouraged to be sensible and well-behaved and get on with their work quietly and obediently. Girls tend to maintain their levels of confidence through feedback from their teachers, so take very seriously teachers’ opinions both of their work and their behaviour.
Girls who are assertive in the classroom, particularly in primary school, have been found to be disparaged by teachers and seen as ‘bossy’ or ‘overconfident’ rather than clever, thus making it more difficult for them to maintain this position, particularly in the face of girl cultures which themselves promote group conformity and disparage drawing attention to  success. This combination of discouraging girls’ assertiveness and treating their success as due to hard work rather than ability can have serious consequences: in one British study, girls were found to be entered for lower level mathematics examinations than boys who had equivalent or slightly poorer performance, because they were perceived as lacking confidence and natural ability.
In summary
Teachers treat boys and girls very differently from the day they start school until the day they leave. They do this because they hold stereotyped assumptions about gender which are self-reinforcing as they affect their own and the children’s classroom behaviour. These assumptions lead them to present children with different behavioural expectations, different classroom experiences, and different curricular and pedagogic provision. The result is that neither girls nor boys are given access to the full range of learning experiences to which they are entitled. Working-class girls are likely to particularly disadvantaged in this, as the cumulative effect of this differential treatment leads them to choose vocational courses that  prepare them for poorly paid jobs with little career structure and a focus on women’s work. Attitudes and expectations of teachers throughout schooling thus lead to long-term gendered disadvantage in adult life.
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