Monday, June 4, 2012

Women in Education

"Wanted Immediately: A Sober diligent Schoolmaster capable of teaching READING, WRITING, ARITHMETICK, and the Latin TONGUE…Any Person qualified as above and well recommended, will be put into immediate Possession of the School, on applying to the Minister of Charles Parish, York count."--The Virginia Gazette, August 20, 1772.

From colonial times and into the early decades of the 19th century, most teachers were men.  However, reformers in the 1840's began to argue that women were by nature nurturing and maternal, as well as of high moral character.  Even as they granted women moral superiority, reformers quietly worried over women's ability to maintain order in the classroom and discipline unruly children. In the mid to late 1800's, with as many as 60 children in the one-room schoolhouse, teachers had their work cut out for them.  Admittedly, the curriculum was generally not very demanding--reading, writing, basic arithmetic, a little geography, and history.  The texts often took the form of simple moral tracts and primers of childish virtues.  Still, women flocked to teaching.  Not only were they grateful for the salary, however meager; they also welcomed the independence and sense of purpose teaching gave them.  No doubt some regretted having to leave their homes and earn their own livings.  Many assumed they would teach only a few years until they married.  But many others welcomed the escape from a life of drab labor, isolation or frivolity.  Teaching gave women a window onto a wider world of ideas, politics and public usefulness  (PBS Online: Only a Teacher:  Teaching Timeline, ).

It’s a well-known fact that in public education today, women form the bulk of the work force and men serve as bosses. In school administration, men are most likely to be found in positions with the greatest power, pay, and prestige (Smith-Doerr, 2004; Blackman, 2000; Maskell, 1997; Fauth, 1984; Foxley, 1982; Astin & Snyder 1982; Allain, 1981; Adkinson, 1980-1981).  Researchers have attempted to find some explanation for this anomaly, usually be focusing on the obstacles women face attempting to enter administration. Generally, the obstacles are categorized into two groups:  Internal obstacles which include sex-role stereotyping, lack of aspiration, role conflict, and low self-esteem; and external obstacles which include lack of encouragement, family responsibilities, lack of mobility, and hiring and promoting practices (Gilligan, 1985; Marshall, 1985; Yoder, 1985; Maskell, 1997).

Much been written regarding the perception of a “glass ceiling” for women wishing to move up the ranks of management, but in truth, women are more likely to run through a maze of obstacles that may prevent or impede them from moving up. While more and more women are moving into the ranks of leadership, they often do so by sacrificing the more traditional roles of the family.  They may have a surrogate parent or grandparent who provides child care and assumes the roles of parent volunteer and afterschool chauffeur.  In some cases, the husband is the primary care-giver for the children.  And yet, in many cases, the woman has made the decision to remain single or childless in order to pursue career goals.

What’s interesting to me is how men will mentor and open doors for other men wishing to move into leadership roles, but women are often not inclined to do this for each other.  Sometimes known as the “good old boys” network, this support framework has not always existed for women.  As a result, women tend to have to prove their worth and leadership by working harder and walking a fine line between assertiveness and the gentility expected of a woman.  Assertiveness in a man is often viewed as a sign of strong leadership, while in a woman, it has quite a different connotation.

Even today, women in educational leadership roles tend to come up through the ranks of elementary education.  Perhaps this is because the time commitment seems a better compliment to family life than the late nights and weekends associated with the extracurricular activities of secondary education, not to mention the myriad of emotional and discipline problems that interfere with the learning process. 

However, there is an interesting phenomenon occurring as more and more women enter the ranks of educational leadership.  They are more informed about learning theory and more focused on student achievement outcomes.  They are opening their classroom doors and having professional conversations about student learning.  No longer content to blindly "follow the leader", they are more willing to question authority when philosophies are not in alignment. They are also less likely to fold under pressure and more willing to be tough when the situation calls for it. 

Why has this change taken so long and how have the gender dynamics between men and women influenced and impeded this movement?  I can only speak to the relationships of the four generations of women educators in my family.  What is it about the "cowboy" spirit and attracked us to them?  To find out, I'll need to look more closely at the lives and loves of school marms and cowboys.


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