We need to model for our students who are world-changers. Not heroes | Rebecca Agar

As an accomplished and successful career woman, I worry that all too often, in our small corner of the education world, women, particularly teachers, are “heroes” to students but defined through our achievements, as “male-image offenders”. Teachers are encouraged to focus on their students’ accomplishments and focus on what they’ve “got to show for themselves” while male teachers, if not reprimanded, will often feel a sense of failure when students develop stories that question that focus. The notion that women can’t demonstrate their worth while also creating inspiring stories is very dangerous.

It’s no surprise to me that in 2018 the Toronto public school board found itself in a “gender crisis” over bullying and harassment in the classroom. Even as statistics reveal an equal gender split in the TPS (between girls and boys), incidents of harassment and bullying continue to dominate student gatherings. Being too successful in girls’ eyes is the worst potential enemy of all. Female students are punished for problems they had as children: being stressed by growing up; boys are rewarded for problems they were never tasked with. Teachers must strive to tailor their education experiences to fully inspire both genders.

Over the past few weeks, the TPS released a series of 16 images that illustrate the untold strength and life experiences of eight women who have led prominent careers throughout Canada and the world. The photos, put together to encourage students to follow their dreams, portray these women as credible role models, yet many still believe that women “can’t do” what they want to do. As TPS superintendent John Malloy wrote in a blog post this week, “I worry for our young women and girls who hear these images and see these female role models in the classroom as heroes or other legendary figures. In that sense, these images provide false inspiration, because they move girls and women into believing that having these career women as role models will advance their goals and/or discourage girls and women from pursuing careers in a male-dominated industry.”

In his letter, Malloy argues that modelling for students means not discounting women for what they’ve already accomplished but providing students with career models for where they can go with their lives. Both Michael Clowes’ book Freedom Girls and Wikipedia’s efforts in this effort are admirable. While I appreciate that there’s often more to a person than their professional accomplishments, we can only ensure equality in the classroom by helping our students create stories of their own achievements. There are far too many incredible women who don’t get to share their stories with our students.

I spent a decade working as a science teacher in a small town in rural Ontario, and many of my students were developing a bond with me. They asked me about my personal life. They wanted to know about relationships. They wanted to hear from me about the dangers of drugs. I wanted to share these stories with them, to reach them on a deep level, so that they would succeed as people. I asked my students about the pictures of women I used to use in my classroom: the beautiful women that made me feel like a woman. I was proud that they were thankful that I shared my story with them. As someone who became an advocate for girls’ rights, I believe this advice holds true for our government as well: what happens in the classroom should not stay in the classroom.

Are bullies needed in the classroom? Or does our young people need a role model who will make them feel seen and valued?

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