“Good morning, boys and girls!” It’s an innocuous greeting, one we can easily imagine being said by teachers everywhere. I tended to be a little more formal with my high schoolers, using “ladies and gentlemen.” It turns out I was reinforcing a pattern of gendered identification that started much earlier in my students’ lives and may have done damage to their social and academic skill sets.
Indeed, a body of research has begun to build up suggesting that many similarly innocent behaviors end up building on outside social patterns to codify in students’ minds the notion that boys and girls are two distinct groups and should be treated as such. This manifests socially in extreme self-segregation (especially in the earlier elementary years). Academically, the information on gender gaps in math and reading—boys tending to do better in math, girls tending to do better in reading—speak for themselves.
This starts at such a young age that it’s easy to confuse, say, third grade behavior and performance with the “natural” way of things, when in fact it may be nothing of the sort. Intentional changes to teacher practice—think eliminating boy-girl-boy-girl seating or lining students up by something other than sex—can help counteract this, provided those changes are paired with effective training that helps teachers recognize and start to move past unconscious gender-based assumptions.
One researcher makes the point that the use of gender to divide up students would look terrible if done by race. The example she gives is a hypothetical teacher saying, “Good morning whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get your pencils.” That would raise red flags for most observers, I would think. Yet we think nothing of consistently implying to students that there are meaningful differences between boys and girls.
Teachers have the power to counteract these effects by encouraging boy-girl interactions without using the boy-girl labels. Classrooms that undertook such changes showed much better social and behavioral outcomes than control classrooms.
The damage of labels goes much farther than gender, of course. While teachers may not greet their classes with a warm, “Good morning, whites and blacks,” or “Good morning, Christians and Muslims,” certain assumptions and stereotypes can certainly creep in. Finding ways to address these without devolving into resentment is a big challenge, but a worthy one.