This summer, I did the scariest thing possible for someone working in education policy: I went back into the classroom to work as a teacher. In between lesson plans, data analysis, and parent-teacher conferences, the entire school took a group picture to commemorate the students' hard work. Scrunched together, several of the older boys began to lie on one another, each resting his head on the lower waist of the boy behind him. There was nothing sexual about their head placement, until one of the male teachers reminded the boys that they were "acting gay" and that this type of behavior would be punished if it continued.
This teacher was out of line, but he certainly wasn't out of character for many educators in our nation's classrooms. While we write blog posts about how to talk to little girls, we aren't as progressive when it comes to our little boys. From an early age, children are told by the media, parents, and teachers what little boys and girls should do. Though we have started to realize the damaging effect that this has on young women, we have completely ignored the impact on men. In today's world, a little girl is free to like blue, but a little boy can never like pink. That needs to be changed if we ever want to pay more than lip service to equality.
Nicholas Ferroni writes about how important teachers are as allies to the LGBTQ community, which inherently challenges some traditional gender norms. While I laud his efforts, especially as a straight male teacher, educators need to do more to prohibit gender from getting in the way of academic mastery. Not only would this be more socially fair, but it could also have serious economic benefits.
A robust body of social psychology research has shown that diversity increases group performance. By bringing more women into traditionally male fields and more men into traditionally female fields, groups and industries might be able to outperform the current boundaries of what is thought possible. Linking occupation to sexuality only serves to further exacerbate these gender inequalities and primarily affects men. There's no reason that a woman who studies science is a scientist, but a man who studies elementary education is queer.
Teachers, if you have the privilege to work with young folks, don't limit their growth by your misconceptions and qualms. Hold equal standards for both boys and girls for physical contact. Let children play with whatever toy they want. Don't tell children to "straighten up," or hurl the word "gay" as an insult. Maybe your male student who likes pink will be gay, but maybe he just likes pink. His personal preferences don't limit his capacity to learn, so these preferences certainly shouldn't limit your capacity to teach. Frankly, America has much bigger problems that what toy a child plays with at recess.
Follow James Harrell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/J_Hilton3