Recently I have been becoming more and more interested in the concept of gender identity and how the idea of binary genders are being challenged more and more these days as we progress more toward a view of gender neutrality. But as I've been looking into it I have come across this idea of being 'gender fluid.' This basically means that a person can move between male and female roles/identities or neither without subscribing to any societal norms that dictate what their gender is.
This view of gender non-conforming presents an interesting question - at least to me.
What if early childhood teachers were fluid in how they presented gender or at least between the approaches of masculinity and femininity?
To me the idea that teachers could effectively transition between being masculine dominant and feminine dominant might help us to become more holistic and multi-faceted in our approach to our roles as teachers.
Have you ever tried dressing in 'gender opposite' clothing for a week, donned fake stubble, cut your hair shorter, and engaged in the kind of play people generally don't associate with the gender you identify with? I would probably suspect you haven't. Imagine the kind of insight you could gain about how children view gender and the gender of their role-models (their teachers/parents) if the adult assumed a completely different gender identity.
Experience has shown me that children (both boys and girls) react differently to men than they do to women. They are generally quick to 'flock' to the male guest and are automatically requesting to be flung over his shoulder and taken for plane rides. The display of excitement, enthusiasm and in most instances - physical interaction can be a little overwhelming with kids piling onto the visiting man and the guest quickly assuming the role of human jungle gym. And what I have noticed is that this is not limited to a specific age group as most people would expect, infants and toddlers react the same way as preschool children do.
I think it's a fairly interesting interaction to both participate in and observe. Some would say that the reason for that kind of a reaction from children is because their day to day environment (that of the early childhood centre) consists mostly of women and they become excited by the introduction of a man because their typical environment doesn't include one. I disagree with that perspective. I am more inclined to think it is because children generally align men with the expectation that there is going to be high velocity, acrobatic, vertigo inducing play involved. Children are aware of men and what a man generally represents to them - even if they are being raised by two women. There is exposure everywhere - the internet, television, storybooks, cultural imagery etc. So it isn't hard for a child to draw the conclusion that a man can provide a kind of interaction that women generally don't in their early childhood environments.
Now you might be reading this and about to get a little anguished that I just implied that women don't engage in physical, 'masculine' play as much as they should. But truth is, most teachers who are women do not. And that's ok, acceptance is the first part of changing behaviour. And if you think I am just targeting women, I think there is an absence of nurturing, gentleness, and sensitivity from men often in their teaching practice as well.
Which brings me to my main point - becoming gender fluid or at least becoming more attuned and responsive to navigating masculinity and femininity in our roles as teachers will inevitably make us......better.
I remember sitting in a conference and listening to someone speak about how women really don't understand boys so they are not in the best position to construct an environment for them. I disagree COMPLETELY. I don't think it's a lack of understanding, I think it's a lack of ability to transition between masculinity and femininity that presents a problem for both women AND men - but more for women...why? Because of the sheer number of women who are teachers in early childhood. The inability for most women to take an interest and respond to the inherent and developing need children have for being physically challenged, 'wrestled' with, have their imagination and creativity explored through avenues such as super hero play, and to show a sense of masculinity ultimately makes it difficult to form relationships with children, especially those who enjoy those aspects of play.
The same can be said for men of course, needing to increase their understanding and ability to nurture, to care for and about, providing and inclusive, emotionally responsive teaching practice is similarly vital for men in their roles as well.
In essence, what I am suggesting is:
- Becoming more flexible in moving between our masculinity and femininity when it comes to areas of play.
- Being confident in presenting ourselves as neither feminine nor masculine but teachers who can effectively navigate between both.
- Being non-prescriptive when it comes to gender-related areas of play - children should have the opportunity to follow their interests irrespective of what gender they identify with.
- Bursting the bubble of what tradition has told us we are and how we should teach, and discovering new, more gender inclusive approaches to teaching.
In the end, we generally teach based on theory, experience, and traditions. But in order to break some of those restrictive, gender-based practices we sometimes need to explore how other genders approach their role as teachers, taking from it what we can to make our practice more robust, inclusive and responsive.