Gender, Navel Gazing

Thinking About the Spine of Education

Inspired by Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Cleveland, I added an extra step while dusting and tidying up my office this morning.

My assessment, psychometrics, statistics, and research books.

My instruction, rubrics, policy, grades, and learning books.

My history, pedagogy, cultural competency, and anti-racism books (I moved some around while cleaning as I just got in a bunch of new history books).

I tried not to spend a lot of time counting or looking at patterns. If there was a male-presenting name or more male names than female ones on an edited book, I flipped it around. However, I noticed that almost all of my psychometric books were written by men, almost all of the books around classroom culture and related to K-2 are written by women. I noticed I seem to like authors as I saw the same name several times as I dusted and flipped. I wondered why I purchased a particular book and remembered the reason or excuse I used to buy other ones. I found a few books I’d forgotten I’d picked up and one I thought I lost. There’s a few I want to re-read and more than a few I’ll move to the basement and the bookcase of forgotten books.

We know women make up the spine of education – 75% of teachers are women – but they aren’t reflected in leadership positions. We can speculate about sociological reasons why such as institutional sexism (and racism) and the glass escalator or we can pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s hard though, at the individual level, to influence those statistics unless we’re in a position of leadership with the ability to hire or promote. That said, we can consider whose voices we boost, which authors we support, and who we cite. And while we may not be able to influence all male panels, we can do something about all male bookcases (or all White bookcases). It seems like a small, meaningless move but I’m a firm believer that small moves can add up to a sea changes. Eventually. Slowly. Hopefully.


Gender, Navel Gazing, Uncategorized

Learning To Defer


Our cats – Steve! and Kevin

I am not a parent. It doesn’t take a lot of navel gazing for me to reach the conclusion that I have nothing to say or write about how to parent. I don’t go near discussions of parenting because a) despite my fondness for my cats, I recognize they’re not children  and b) connecting my love for public education to parenting is some pretty high level brain gymnastics.  I don’t defer or claim expertise, I avoid.

I’m not gay or transgender but members of my family (born and made) are. I connected hard with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and haven’t looked back since then. Deciding to speak up around  gender and/or sexuality  issues was as easy a decision as shutting up around parenting. I don’t claim expertise, I only claim the moniker of feminist and ally.

Meanwhile, I’ve made some awkward, mortifying, terrifying mistakes when sharing my thinking on topics related to race and equity. I think I’ve done enough work to understand an issue and then I realize (sometimes a moment before speaking, sometimes a moment after) I still have to do some unlearning and relearning and crack the spines on some new books. On these issues, I slip and slide in and out of understanding and confusion, occasionally stubbing a toe and working hard to do better. I am a perpetual learner. Any emerging expertise comes in conversations with fellow learners or in my written reflections here on my blog.

And then there’s assessment design. Want to know about performance-based assessment? I can share lit reviews through interpretive dance. Want to write a good multiple question? You want the short answer or the long answer? Don’t like rubrics? Give me five minutes and I’ll change your mind. Wanna debate assessment?

Come at me

Basically, I’m getting better knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. And when in doubt, I defer.

Deferring is a short way of saying:

  • “I don’t know enough about this topic. Let me point you towards someone who does.” or
  • “I think I know about this topic but I know this person knows WAAY more than I do, so go with their response.” or
  • “This isn’t my space. The owner of this space may have a different take than mine.”

We defer when we RT without commenting. We defer when we tag someone in a complementary tweet* and point to their expertise. The flip side of deferring is asserting  expertise, laying bare the tension in on-line discourse – be it threaded Twitter chats, dueling blog posts, or comment sections – where, in theory, all voices are equal.

Thanks to Southpark, many (myself included) can’t help but hear Cartman’s whining about RESPECT MUH AUTHORITAH! when the concept comes up. The implication is that asserting expertise is akin to acting like a spoiled, bratty second-grader, stomping your foot and saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong because I say so.”

And yet… and yet. Expertise exists. Some people know more about some topics than other people. This isn’t controversial nor earth shattering. My favorite quote on that subject comes from John Scalzi, a science fiction author.

Being an expert/pro doesn’t mean you’re right about everything in your field. It does mean you likely know when others are wrong about it.

When to defer or when to assert expertise? I poked at this a bit when I wrote about The Backfire Effect but it’s again on my mind. Because I write and think about gender in education, I notice patterns, patterns which are not unique to education. Patterns, though, that go back to the dawn of our country and are deeply entrenched in the teaching profession. To be clear, it’s not my claim gender is always at play when there’s a disagreement or someone someone says I’m not qualified to comment on something I am, in fact, qualified to speak about. (I would consider donating one of my cats+ to a loving home could I get some women in education to defer to my expertise.)  I do think gender is at play more often than we’re willing to admit.

And why would we admit it? Teaching is a predominately female profession! How can it be impacted by sexism? The challenge is that sexism runs deep in the profession for many reasons, some of which can be attributed to the dominance of women. Teaching was once referred to as “woman’s true profession” and seen as female equivalent of preaching. It was an acceptable profession for women who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to earn a living. By 1880, the mental image held by Americans of a “teacher” was a white woman. Almost 140 years later, the profession is still trying to figure out what to do with that responsibility.

To be good at school is learning how to play along, to be polite, to follow the rules – both informal and formal. And in many cases, those informal rules are created by white women to continue the grammar and tradition of school, a place they themselves thrived. Meanwhile, white boys who break the rules at school, who experience a “crisis” once a generation have gone on to lead our country and companies for as long as girls have outperformed boys at school.

So… I’m at a loss. What does it take to get a male non-expert in a topic to defer to a female expert? To get white men to listen to women about issues related to education? Beyond that, to listen to the black girls who are being pushed out of schools at alarming rates? To the boys of color who return to schools as adults at a rate far below that of any other demographic group?  Native Americans can’t get a white man to acknowledge the racism inherent in the name of a football team. Pragmatic, frustrated me wonders why should I expect the dynamics in education to be any different.

How do we get white men to defer? What would happen if I were to say to a white male blogger/tweet-er, “You’re wrong. I know more about you on this topic.” What labels might be ascribed to me? Can one shrug into a mantel of expertise? Or does it have to be draped over your shoulders by others? What are the implications when the default “expert” has long been seen as having a particular race and gender? What are the implications when there is a sense that because something is written in a blog post or tweet, it’s true?

I’m left asking a question I asked at the end of another blog postWhat does it look like to change the system, one mindset at a time? I still have no idea. I know though that I’m tired about reading mis-information about a field I care deeply about and know a lot about. And not that it matters, but I may very well test the limits of my ability to shout down a white male author the next time one blames Angela Duckworth for the birth of the grit narrative.


*It is not “deferring” to tag someone on Twitter to demand they comment on a topic of your choosing. It is not “deferring” to tag someone in a discussion you’re having with someone else to ask that person to settle a debate or comment. FWIW and FYI.

+ Kevin (the tabby) is what one might generously call a DogCat. He’s a tank with a walnut brain who can open cupboards and knows exactly where Paul keeps the thermometer with the laser pointer. So, if needed, I might let another family experience the joy that is Kevin.

Navel Gazing, Uncategorized

Talking to Conservatives


I don’t know how to talk to conservatives.

Whew. That was a hard confession but it takes a weight off my shoulders that I can now kick around and try to figure out.

Having been raised by the oldest of ten children and born with a thread of gregariousness hard-wired into my DNA, I’ll talk to anyone. I’ve talked to people while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk because why not? I compliment strangers on their shoes and do that thing where, if you’re wearing a nametag, I’m going to use your name if we talk.

I spend entirely too much time talking to strangers via Twitter and laugh the laugh of the obscene when I get feedback in which one of those strangers think I’m cold or stand-offish. I blame the two-dimensional medium of talking in 140 bursts for that. So, despite my habit of sometimes doing Twitter badly, I generally feel there’s more gained by talking to people than not.

I’m not an extrovert per se more of a “life is so weird and if we only get one shot at this, I wanna make it as pleasant and interesting as possible” variety of human. Sometimes idle chatter with strangers can do that. (Sometimes not talking can do that. It’s a fine line.) When that person, though, presents an idea or mindset that is the polar opposite of my own, I struggle to do more than compliment their shoes. Even my metacognitive strategies fail me.

A few years back, I attended a conference on systems thinking and in the midst of work around feedback loops, inputs, outputs, and behaviors over time graphs, I stubbed my brain. I lost my ability to speak and could only gesture weakly towards the other people in my mapping group.

One of the facilitators saw my reaction and sat beside me. “You’re holding too tight,” she said. “Imagine you’re helping a friend rappel down the side of a cliff. Your job isn’t to grab the safety rope and stop her descent. That would hurt both of you.” I think I nodded, trying my best with my broken brain to stay with her. “Instead, you need to let the rope pass through your hands, holding tight enough to slow her fall but loose enough that the rope barely brushes your hands and she progresses safely. Treat each idea here today like that. Let it pass through your mind just like that rope through your hands. Don’t worry about grabbing tightly. When you’re ready to think deeply about an idea or concept, when it makes sense, you’ll feel your friend’s feet hit the ground safely.”

Learning scientists may disagree with that analogy but it sure as heck worked for me in that setting. I felt when an idea went thump as it landed and when it didn’t, I let the rope keep slipping, holding just tight enough to feel it pass by. I got better at saying to my group members, “I’m still working on that. Can you tell me more about it?” I left with a clear understanding of what I mastered and what I still needed to throw off a cliff a few more times before I got the safe landing that means deep, accurate understanding. I still remind myself of the analogy when I encounter something unfamiliar and feel the first tingles of rope burn because I’m trying to stop something that’s not yet in a safe landing place. Just because I don’t understand something now, it doesn’t mean I can’t eventually work through it.

So, this morning, I read this by Robert Pondiscio and wanted to throw it off a literal cliff. I noticed the image of a white woman to represent the “left”, Hess describing the generic conservative reformer using male pronouns, and the repeated use of the phrase “social justice warrior ” which has a history methinks the speakers aren’t aware of. Part of me wanted to accidently forget to clip in the safety rope and listen for the ker-splat.

In truth, I did feel a thunk and figured I owed it to this concept of public education that I hold so dear to take a beat and figure out what the thunk was. To my chagrin, the thunk was the hollow ring of stereotyping. Despite my willingness to make small talk with all sorts of folks, my understanding of conservatives comes from the media. When it comes to school reform and the faces I associate with conservationism – ie. white men of a certain age and income bracket –  I’m skewed by my hobby. Doing research at night and on weekends has me deep in the dusty pages of history in which white male reformers, with the best of intentions, offer a solution to a profession that is, depending on the date, anywhere from 60% to 89% female. I know that reform isn’t all good or all bad and that there’s a long history of female reformers with bad ideas and male teachers with good ones. I spent entirely too long talking to my entirely too patient non-educator husband about it for the latest episode of our podcast.

However, it’s hard to read a text with one part of your brain trying to actively avoid stereotyping while the other part of your brain is reading statements and thinking, “that sounds racist”, “this feel sexist.” My sense was becoming that conservatives think progressive reformers can’t walk and chew gum. That we can’t talk about racism and sexism and teaching and learning. I can’t know, though, if that’s what they think without talking to them.

So back to the beginning of the text. On the second pass, I read it closely, looking for a quote I could connect with, not push back against. Right there in the 9th paragraph, I found one from a reformer who identifies as politically independent: “I’d hate to lose the next [conservative reformer] because people believe you can’t be [progressive] and also be a pragmatist who can make alliances and get victories.”

I so get that! I’m pragmatic! I’m a vegetarian butcher when it comes to assessment design! Wahoo! Common ground!

A connection means I can free up brain space to ask questions and consider their implications. Take 1: What is the thing that conservatives think they bring to the work of school reform that we liberal progressives are missing? I see the concern around groupthink. I kinda wish there’d been a woman or a man of color at the table for the Committee of Ten to raise some concerns but eh… what’s done is done. If odds are good progressives and conservatives have more in common than not, is the concern we can’t get changes made without you? And that’s mighty hostile of you, Jennifer. Dial that back a notch.

Take 2: Is there a fear we’re not pragmatic enough? That we won’t get things done and need a strong, guiding, dare I say, paternalistic hand to guide us? My sword is in the shop at the moment but that might be the social justice warrior in me speaking. Maybe it’s that progressives have an air of holier than thou and we need a translator in the world of school reform between … which wow, holy mean, Batman. That’s a dead end for discourse if ever I’ve offered one. 

Take 3: If you see it as a “drift”, what’s the center point? And how far back are you looking? Teacher evaluation, merit pay – neither new nor unique. This group of conservative reformers who worked with Republican governors to make it happen are bringing up ideas their foreparents had and implemented with varying degrees of success. This thread feels comfortable, not unkind or stereotypical.

From that question came a possible entry point into a conversation. My hunch is that the “drift” is actually pushback from those in the ranks in a form that is fundamentally different any other previous period of reform. For generations, teachers weren’t even at the table. And if they were, they were likely on the fast track to becoming a schoolman.

My thinking is that I’m OK with the profession doing a bit of knee and elbow-spreading and taking up more space while they get familiar with the new view. It seems like a small price to pay to edge out conservative voices for a bit while social justice advocates find stable footing. More to the point, today’s classrooms are overwhelmingly staffed by women who experienced second and third wave feminism (flawed in its own way, especially as it relates to white, female teachers) which means speaking up in a way that’s different than previous generations of women.  Oh dear. I suspect this is me being all progressive and liberal and feministy which means I’ve set up any conversation as a sparring match and that’s no good.

Questions aren’t working. Back to the text and the concerns raised at the end. I think I get what’s being said. The “risks” you listed helped me realize where to start when we end up at crosswalk together.

And then I see it. The entry point lies that within this quote: “If [progressives] are convincing themselves that to be conservative means not caring about the disadvantaged, then they don’t understand conservatism.” That speaker is right. I don’t understand conservatism.

Hey, Robert, nice shoes. So, in your opinion,

when it comes to school reform, what makes a conservative reformer different than a progressive reformer?

Clean. Simple. Left unanswered by the text. Mostly un-discussed in the meeting halls of the social justice warriors. Huh. Maybe I can talk to conservatives.