It used to drive me absolutely crazy. In moving to a brand new city and starting my career 7 years ago, I met a lot of strangers – introductions to friends of friends, crossing paths with other young people enjoying a night out in the city, striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to me on the Metro, etc. And inevitably when the conversation turned to “what do you do?” my response always seemed to elicit a similar series of reactions.
“I’m a teacher.” “Oh really? What grade?” (The assumption there being that I teach elementary school.) “High school.” “Oh! What subject?” “Math.”
Then it was one of a few things, most of which basically boiled down to this: “My math teachers didn’t look like you.”
I struggled with how quick I was to get offended by the immediate assumption that I taught younger grades – I can’t imagine many jobs more necessary, important, difficult, and physically/emotionally demanding than teaching elementary school (I certainly couldn’t do it), and yet that reaction always made me feel undervalued, somehow. In early years, it felt like a comment on my intelligence or capability – and I almost enjoyed the chance to “earn some credibility” by throwing my teaching of math in their face. But, inevitably, responding this way always made me feel like part of the problem.
I struggled with the way my woman-ness, and often my specific physical appearance, was commented upon – as though it is inherently strange or special for a young woman to have a passion for mathematics and still look like a woman. Men usually take it to a really uncomfortable place – “If I had a teacher like you, I wouldn’t have been able to focus in class.” “How do you handle the teenage boys in your class?” “I bet all of your male students have a crush on you.” I still have no scripted reaction to this category of remarks. It always leaves me feeling small, uncomfortable.
Often the person doing the reacting really meant whatever they were trying to say as a compliment of sorts. Other women, especially, are quick to move the conversation into a space where they can share their own discomfort or perceived limitations with mathematics, and express genuine regret that they didn’t have the opportunity to see it as an area of study that was open to them. I am developing a better understanding of how my presence in the classroom as a woman who teaches math has an impact on the way my students imagine both mathematics and mathematicians. But that’s not something I did, it’s just something I am. It’s something that (perhaps naively) only really became apparent to me as an important part of my work in the classroom once I started teaching. When someone thanks me for being a “role model,” I can speak with passion about working with young women as they develop the mathematical abilities within them, but I always feel a bit confused about what, exactly, I’m being thanked for.
When it comes to the “math” part of my math teacher identity – yes – it’s really important to make it possible for young women to see a future for themselves in these traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. (Not to mention – all of the desperately necessary work we have to do in allowing other marginalized groups access to these careers as well.) Representation is a big part of that. Being proud of my genuine, nerdy love of math and finding a comfortable home for that alongside my identity as a woman is significant. And yet, I worry that as we fight for greater access for women to male dominated spaces, we’re only fighting half the battle unless we simultaneously begin to value more greatly the work being done by those in traditionally female careers, like teaching. Why is it it that the praise for my work as a math teacher so often only focuses on the “math” piece?
I’m reminded of this really fantastic article from a year back, “Why I Am Not a Maker”
“I am not a maker. In a framing and value system that is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year. That’s because all of the actual change, the actual effects, are at the interface between me as an educator, my students, and the learning experiences I design for them. People have happily informed me that I am a maker because I use phrases like “design learning experiences,” which is mistaking what I do (teaching) for what I’m actually trying to help elicit (learning). To characterize what I do as “making” is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I “make” other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.
A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: ‘We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.’ Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that only making things is valuable. Rather, I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.”
Last night was just a typical social Saturday night out, and over the course of the evening I had several chances to practice a range of reactions to others’ reactions as they found out I teach math. It’s still a work in progress.