Gender Relations in the Classroom

A couple of weeks ago, two students in my room—a boy and a girl, friends who often play as part of the same group—were on the outs. Small conflicts kept erupting. On the advice of one of our parent volunteers, who had just finished a difficult recess with them, I pulled those two students aside to talk on the way back to school. Given 10 minutes to let out their grievances, we were able to get deeper than the immediate conflict, and arrived at a place I hadn’t expected: the girl expressed a longer-running frustration, that the boy frequently hug-tackles their male friends during games (against our school policy of social distancing this year…), but doesn’t do the same to her. The boy responded immediately that he couldn’t hug her—people would tease him about being in love if he did that to a girl!

We didn’t reach a full resolution on that day, but both students seemed relieved to have shared their feelings and heard their friend’s perspective. (By the way, I pointed out that at some schools, boys would be teased for hugging boys, and both of them expressed pure incredulity.)
Both these students are new to our school this year. I told them that day that I thought that people might not tease the same way at our school, but I also thought to myself that it would be good to get the perspective of students who have been here longer on that topic. I didn’t want to promise something that wouldn’t be true in practice.
I thought carefully about how to structure that discussion. So the next week, I scheduled a longer reflection time one day, and I asked for an unusual seating arrangement: students sorted themselves around the circle from the person who had been here longest to the newest arrival. Then, I told them I was going to ask two separate queries, and that I wanted each person to limit themselves to one answer to each query if they chose to speak.
Query 1a: Students who have been here many years, how would you describe the relationships between boys and girls at this school?
Query 1b: Students who joined within the last year or so, how would you describe the relationships between boys and girls at the other schools you’ve been to?
The answers were fairly unanimous on each side. The students who had been at CFS for a long time described an informal separation: many people prefer to play with friends of their own gender, but that’s not true for everyone, and separation is not enforced by teachers or peers. They also spoke about the importance of treating everyone equally regardless of gender. The students who had more recent experience of other schools were also united: no matter where they had come from, boys there never played with girls or vice versa. The gap had been uncrossable.
To my surprise, one of the newer students broke down in tears describing this situation, and how they had never felt that they fit well in that divided social world.
Query 2: In terms of gender relations, what do you believe is right? What do you hope for our community to be?
This time the answer was unanimous around the circle: People should play with whomever they like. Everyone should be treated fairly and equally. You don’t have to be equally close to everyone, but you have to treat everyone with respect. No one should tease anyone for who they play with.
I told them that their answer agreed closely with the school’s position and our testimony of Equality. I made sure to reference the fact that not everyone fits neatly into either gender. And then, I ended with the same semi-humorous point I’d made to the two friends the previous week:
Can you imagine me yelling to you at recess that boys shouldn’t be hugging girls, or girls shouldn’t be hugging boys? (Students: No!)
Can you imagine me yelling to you at recess that boys shouldn’t be hugging boys, or girls shouldn’t be hugging girls? (Students: No!)
What can you imagine me yelling at you if I see you at recess hugging someone?
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Renata McAdams

is our grade 3-4 classroom teacher. She has taught in a variety of public, charter, and independent schools, including a combined 3-5 classroom in Ann Arbor, Mich., for two years. Rentata graduated from Vassar College and received her M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania. She grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and moved to Chicago from Philadelphia with her husband (then-fiancé) in August 2014.

In her free time, Renata enjoys singing, acting, dancing, and reading.