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Playing It Straight: The (Re)Making of an Early-Childhood Teacher

Today's guest post is written by April Larremore, Ed.D. April is a former Kindergarten Teacher and Early Childhood Instructional Specialist. Currently, she works for Dallas ISD as the K-2 Professional Development Manager.

"Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong... It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum not as two opposing sets of ideals." - Emma Watson

Rethinking Gender Equity
Young children's access to knowledge about gender, relationships, and sexuality has critical implications for their health and well-being, not only in their early years but throughout their lives. This knowledge can build children's competencies and resilience, contributing to new cultural norms of non-violence in gendered and sexual relationships.

For many early childhood teachers, interacting with children about issues concerning gender and sexuality is fraught with feelings of uneasiness and anxiety. For an unfortunately small number of teachers, an openness to challenging dominant societal beliefs is considered important if this questioning leads to classroom interactions and instructional behaviors that can increase acceptance of diversity with and for children.

In our current context, the ways early childhood teachers see, understand, and respond to young children's work, play and language are positioned within their knowledge of childhood, teaching, and learning. These knowledges are often mono-cultural, Universalist, and limiting. Concern about this normalizing of childhood and other related forms of educational marginalization is why I became determined to rethink and reframe my teaching.

Gender and the Schooling of Girls and Boys
Typically, teachers interact more often with male students whether it is to answer their questions, expand on their comments, verbally admonish them, or to help them with their classwork. In addition, young boys tend to ask more questions, control classroom discussions and conversations, and receive more praise and correction for their mistakes. 

Research has also noted the prevalence of gender inequity in student-to-student interactions inside the classroom, on the playground, and in young children's textbooks and picture books. This type of gender-disparity in early childhood classrooms sends a gender specific message to young boys and girls that could contribute to biased attitudes in young children as well as socially reinforcing gender stereotyping.

Gendered Spaces and Places
Boys tend to take up more space and have greater control over the use of their own time, thus dominating both time and space in the classroom. Boys usually occupy the space directly around and closest to the teacher. This positioning not only provides them a clear view of what they are supposed to do, but it also provides them with more possibilities for making eye contact with the teacher, something that is paramount in gaining teacher attention and the opportunity to speak.

Males dominate not only classroom space, but also classroom talk. With the recent push in student-centered learning, classroom talk has become increasingly central to the teaching and learning process. Recent studies found that boys use their voice to suggest their position, attract and sustain an audience (the teacher and classmates), and assert themselves when others are speaking. Based on studies such as these it appears that girls are marginalized through both collaborative discussion in mixed groups as well as class discussion with the teacher.

Classrooms construct their own spaces taking in different players at different times. Within the early childhood classroom, young children use spaces such as the home and block center to construct gendered power relations. These types of spaces reinforce what is considered normal behavior for boys and girls to imitate, while also illustrating the powerful ways in which talk and actions maintain the gendered social order of the classroom.

Uneasiness and Pressures Concerning Childhood Sexuality
In questioning the belief that children are too young to understand displays of gender and sexuality, Kerry Robinson's research directs our attention to the degree to which heterosexual assumptions and behaviors are every day, yet unacknowledged routine practices in early childhood settings. Young children are gendered through early childhood practices, such as playing mothers and fathers in the dramatic play center, chasing games on the playground, mock weddings, lining children up by gender, and the selection of children's literature that only portrays the makeup of heterosexual families.

Additionally, early childhood teachers typically have concerns about the sexualization of childhood and for this reason most of them either quickly shut down or ignore conversations, behaviors, and play that are perceived sexual in nature.

Challenging this revered notion of childhood innocence, there is a body of research which indicates that young children are enthusiastic to talk about gender and sexuality. Mindy Blaise's studies have increasingly highlighted how young children themselves are both active and knowing shareholders in seeking and regulating sexual knowledge and engaging in the policing of gender performances of other children and adults, within rigid boundaries of what is widely considered appropriate masculine and feminine behaviors. Additionally, some research has begun to denote the significant role of the curriculum and educators' pedagogical practices in constructing and normalizing children's gendered identities.

Creating a Critically Conscious Classroom
Research has shown that gender is a critical factor in early childhood teaching practices. According to Bronwyn Davies, the only way that gender norms can be overturned is by young children engaging in counter gender discourses. This suggests that early childhood teachers must create a classroom community that allows and supports critical conversations about gender and that teachers need to make certain that a variety of gender discourses are made accessible to their students. This includes questioning and then disrupting taken-for-granted assumptions about diversity, identities, pedagogy, education, and young children.

Within my own classroom community, I both indulged in and encouraged conversations concerning gender, gender differences, and sexuality. Over time, I gradually began to challenge my students' rigid beliefs about boys and girls and to confront their categorical thinking by directly asking why boys and girls can't like or do certain things. In an effort to create a critically conscious classroom and disrupt gender norms, I gave students more talk and share time concerning toys, objects, and books they brought in from home. I also had more discussions with them regarding why they made the choices they made concerning how they dressed, the way they fixed their hair, and the shoes they wore. I promoted critical consciousness in my students by making room for their talk and actions and by having conversations with them about decisions they made. Believing that there are multiple ways to be gendered, I tried to open up the space for my students to position themselves in multiple ways.

Disrupting Gendered Pedagogies in the Early Childhood Classroom examines the tensions associated with my attempts to rethink gendered narratives and childhood sexuality in my own classroom. It tells the story of my struggle to reframe gendered power relations in the classroom - my willingness to challenge the accepted and suitable definition of the "good" teacher and to be willing to be labeled "bad". 

April is the author of Disrupting Gendered Pedagogies In the Early Childhood Classroom

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