Issue 11/23

Gender sensitivity at school

Sophia Klipstein

«My job is to teach the pupils the educational content from the curriculum. Gender doesn't play a role here, and it's nobody's business at school who has which gender identity and preference. Everyone can be whoever they want and personal pronouns are no longer in the written assessments anyway,» says the Berlin teacher at a mainstream school that has such a diverse range of colleagues and pupils that she doesn't think it's necessary to integrate the topic into lessons. It's standard anyway.
So much for the pragmatic approach. Experience shows, however, that this attitude is not standard everywhere and that there is still a need for development even in schools that consider themselves to be open and diversity-friendly.
Let's take a look at a few quotes from a Waldorf faculty to show the range of attitudes: "I will only use the masculine form in my talk so as not to interrupt the flow of speech." - «I'm not yet comfortable with gendered language, I continue to use the masculine and feminine forms.» - «I don't pay attention to gender at all, I just see the children.» - «The boys are fighting in the schoolyard again and the girls are getting more and more bitchy.»
On the other hand, the fact that a school community is becoming increasingly aware of the issue of gender diversity is demonstrated when pupils and their mentors are spoken about [in the masculine form] on stage at the induction ceremony and this is subsequently reflected upon critically; or when increasing numbers of people successively speak gender-consciously in their contributions at school assemblies; when the asterisk or colon [used in German to indicate both the feminine and masculine form together] has been used so consistently in written public communication for years that it has become the school standard; or when your own not-so-old, ungendered master's thesis suddenly gives rise shame.

Creating a new normal

I taught in a team with a colleague for three years, and right from the start we had the intention of teaching our pupils in a gender-sensitive way, in every main lesson and as a matter of course. From year five onwards, it was no longer «Good morning, dear children!» but rather «Good morning, dear pupils [German: Schüler:innen]!». What felt strange at first became a habit over the next few months and didn't hinder the flow of speech at all. When someone said, «But that pause in the middle of the word is totally artificial», I would reply, «How do you pronounce the word fried egg [German: Spiegelʔei]?» The glottal stop [symbol: ʔ] has always been common in our language and has now found an additional use.
During these three years, we collected occurrences that reflected our endeavours. So one day, almost all the children in year five came to school in reversed gender roles. They had arranged to do this the day before without our knowledge and the boys in particular had great fun putting on make-up or wearing a tutu over their jeans. The blackboard texts were also a constant source of discussion: «Do I have to copy the gendered form? It's much shorter and quicker without it.» However, the most important thing for us was to incorporate gender roles into the content of the lessons. Thus we sought to portray the female figures in Norse mythology as strong and positive. In the history main lessons, we emphasised the emancipated position of women in ancient Egypt, discussed the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu with the children, told them about the lifelong love between Achilles and Patroclus, cautiously touched on the relationship between pupils and teachers in ancient Rome and talked about the role of women in the Middle Ages.

Even though heteronormativity was thus dissolved, we nevertheless still found ourselves in binary thinking. Men and women in history may have had a non-normalised sexual orientation, but they were still two genders. Despite our awareness of the diversity of gender, identity and role behaviour, the pupils kept talking about «the boys» and «the girls», especially in conflict situations. Whereby this always referred only to the children who apparently behaved in a gender-typical way. We wanted to change that in the relationship skills main lesson towards the end of year six.

Pro and Contra

There were also colleagues who thought we were overdoing it and widening the gap between the two genders with our focus. The topic of gender would hardly play a role if it were treated casually. After all, at the Waldorf school all children do handwork and craftwork together and are seen primarily in their (gender-independent) individuality. The objection was understandable: Do we respond to the questions that the pupils bring to us unspoken? Does a conscious approach to the topic of gender identity exacerbate the problem, or do we want to treat the topic as casually as possible so as not to turn it into a problem?
However, when talking out of the box with upper school pupils, the discussions in the staff room seem antiquated. You meet with your people, accept the trans pupil's changed first name as a matter of course and practise using the personal pronoun they for a non-binary person. When asked whether there should be changing rooms for non-binary people or unisex toilets, they say that this is rather unimportant, because it is much more important that people accept each other and discuss together as a class who wants to use which rooms. The pupils' greatest wish is that teachers should address the issue and question their attitudes. This would then change teaching and the school culture of its own accord.

Finding identity beyond the norm

Time and again, there are concerns that trans identity and non-binary identity are just a trend or even «contagious», possibly plunging young people into identity crises and preventing them from progressing in their studies. Now there are classes that deal with it more openly and naturally and we could ask ourselves whether there was a trigger that led to other classmates now also thinking more about their gender identity. Seen positively, this would mean that more and more pupils dare to look at themselves outside of the norm and find their identity. «Great!», we teachers might say, «What's the problem? That's exactly what we intended.» The difficulty however of moving from rational insight to appropriate action can be seen when a trans student still reads their old girl's name and the female pronoun in their report two years after coming out. Avoiding it altogether works for short written assessments, but obviously not for a multi-page, complex report. A somewhat oversimplified hypothesis would be that a stylishly written report with the wrong pronoun is more important to teachers than the person's gender identity.
The pronoun may be unimportant for teachers, but for pupils, the internal and external negotiation of sexual orientation or gender identity is an extremely difficult process. Despite the openness and tolerance of their own environment, this can be associated with considerable social hurdles and personal crises, so that it makes little sense to speak of a choice on a whim and ignore it at school. Statistically, there are two queer people in every class. The freedom to live out one's own gender identity and sexuality, as well as efforts to achieve equality, do not mean that bisexuality is irrelevant. It merely emphasises the right of every person to be able to develop freely, regardless of their gender and the socialised understanding of gender in their environment. We are all part of this society and have the opportunity to transform it into a world with equal rights and less discrimination. Dealing with diversity is therefore conducive to democracy!
My colleague and I wanted to take all of these aspects into account during the three-week relationship skills main lesson. We looked at corresponding images from art history with the pupils: the treatment of nudity and shame, the ideals of beauty in human history, hidden homophile allusions, hermaphrodites. We had teaching units on the distance zone, drew our personal bubble on the school playground with chalk, developed quizzes to raise awareness of gender stereotypes and, in addition to the usual sex education, made sure to illustrate biological differences as well as similarities and intermediate stages – for example, the common origin of the penis and clitoris. The poster, on which beautifully watercoloured illustrations and pet names for the vulva from all the languages of the world were depicted, led to a guessing game and then amusement. That our efforts were beginning to bear fruit was evident on the school trip at the end of the school year: a boy who had suffered his first heartbreak was held compassionately in a hug by his friend and they both gazed into the campfire for a long time.

School influences life stories

The stage in people's lives in which they attend school has a significant influence on their ideas about social structures and the associated expectations. At school, young people learn not only the subject matter but also how they should behave in the community and what is acceptable. It is crucial that they are not influenced by unreflected ideas about traditional gender roles during this phase. Pupils should be given access to stories in which other forms of gender identity are presented in a natural way – not as a problem or drama, but as a normal occurrence. As long as adults do not become insecure as role models and conversation partners, children will not feel overwhelmed or manipulated. On the contrary, all children are positively encouraged in their being and feel and experience that they are welcome and right, far from any pigeonhole.



There are no comments yet

Add comment

0 / 2000

Thank you for your comment. It will be published after review by the administrators.