From Reflection to Action: Professional Development as Springboard to Gender Education
Shira D. Epstein, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Jewish Theological Seminary.
11-year-old Tali anxiously approaches a female teacher, who then summons both Tali and her friends into the day school’s library for an impromptu conference. Nervous giggling and whispering give way to a disclosure; the girls divulge that an older boy has sent a pornographic photographic of himself to Tali’s cell phone. The teacher must choose to respond.
Jewish education’s concerted spotlight on the topic of gender and schooling has generated a wealth of resources, curricula, and programming aimed at strengthening the emotional and physical health of girls, particularly in the areas of self-image and relationship-building (e.g.; Eliav, 2005; Epstein, 2006; Shalom Bayit, 2007). Formal initiatives, however, present a double-edged sword: While structured curricula provide necessary resources for addressing gender and sexuality-related issues with girls, the presence of high quality prepackaged materials can lead educators to overlook key moments in everyday practice for student connection and engagement.
Kayla, the educator in the above scenario, did choose to respond to the girls. As she later explained, the frightened students had willingly outreached to her because she felt “safe” to them. A case study of Kayla, a former graduate student, highlights how she forged a connection with the students over the course of a year, as she shifted perspectives on her role in the education of girls. This shift was an outgrowth of both pre-service and ongoing training on issues related to gender and education. In addition, an emphasis on reflective practice (Schön, 1983) supported Kayla’s self-awareness of her potential impact on her female students.
The case of Kayla
Kayla is a transplant from New York Metropolitan area to a mid-size Western city with a small Jewish population. When we met in summer 2005, she was in her mid-20’s and completing her graduate degree in Jewish education while concurrently employed full-time in a Jewish day school. Kayla had enrolled in Perspectives on Gender and Education, a graduate course I teach in the Davidson School of Jewish Education that explores research, historical perspectives, and implications for the field (e.g.; Levine, 2003; Markowitz, 2004; Orenstein, 1994; Zolty, 1997). Students are asked to articulate their own discourses (Gee, 1998; Phillips, 2000), their tacit beliefs about gender and education that inform their choices as teachers.
Kayla entered the course with mixed views about single-sex education. She was hesitant to view her teaching through the lens of gender, offering both in written assignments and in class that “good education is good education for all”; she clarified that she was unsure as to whether she should pay special attention to gender issues when making pedagogical choices. Her early assignments and class comments demonstrate her desire to make sense of two conflicting discourses: “girls deserve special programming” and “students should be viewed as an individual, irrespective of their gender.” By mid-semester, however, she challenged this initial belief and posed questions about her role as a day school educator:
Is it really that “good education is good education” or is there a piece missing?…We need to understand that there might be a moral/spiritual education component that comes into play in helping children to be aware of the various issues they are experiencing, especially in adolescence.
Does Gender Matter?
As the course progressed and Kayla questioned her initial discourse on the education of girls, she began to reframe her role as an educator. She conjectured that her middle school female students might require support in developing self-awareness and peer relationships. Concomitantly, she referred both in class discussions and papers to her desire to develop her skills of reflective practice, stating that “a picture of the successful educator as one who engages constantly in self-reflection and who can look at the institution in which he/she resides.” In the final week of the course, she wrote more clearly about her altered viewpoint on education of girls, and her desire to initiate change in her own school:
[I have] started to think about ways in which I can take a more proactive role in my community specifically with regards to adolescent girls…Right now I think that to ‘empower’ students means to give them the tools to be effective communicators and to ‘give students voice’ means to create opportunities in the classroom for them to use the tools the have learned and to apply them. In my mind, both the ‘empowerment’ and the ‘giving of voice’ necessitate reflecting with the students on their own growth and development…I think that grappling with the tension raised by our various [course] readings has led me to reflect more on my own practices. One of the most important things I feel I am taking away with me from this class is an awareness of the gender issue and a conviction that gender does matter.
I reconnected with Kayla one year later, in Summer 2006. She shared that she had launched a “girls group” for her middle school students, which she referred to as the Girls Advisory Group. She voiced that she was excited about the initiative, yet unsure of how to best facilitate the group. I wanted to learn more about her decision to form this group, the choices she was making as group facilitator, and how I could best support her in her work. Kayla and I entered into a ten-month research project, in which I recorded frequent phone dialogues about the group, and reflections on her developed interest in addressing an area of gender education. In addition, Kayla submitted journal entries via email.
Educator as Supporter of Healthy Relationship-Building
Kayla and I spent several months clarifying the goals of the group. A recurring theme in our deliberations was Kayla’s continual reference to her role in making the girls aware of behavior that exhibited “relational aggression” (Dellasega & Nixon, 2003; Simmons, 2003; Wiseman, 2002). While some scholars have critiqued this pervasive emphasis in schools as promoting an essentialized and pathologized entity of the “aggressive/mean girl” who is deficient in social competencies (Hadley, 2003), Kayla maintained that she did not view her role as imparter of skills. Rather, she saw herself as intermediary in aiding the girls to examine their own interactions with one another within the group. How did they speak to one another and handle conflict? In our conversations she posed questions such as, “How can I help them to become more reflective?” We brainstormed how she might implement specific activities to encourage this reflexivity, such as journal writing and role plays drawn from the girls’ lives. During one meeting, she asked them to imagine that they saw two friends whispering about another friend during a school-wide sukkah party. She posed questions such as “How would you feel?” “What would you do?” “Would you confront these girls?”
I then talked [with the girls] about what it means to be reflective…we will reflect and think about ourselves and how we are in the world and the act of writing down our ideas and feelings helps us to learn more about ourselves…What does it mean to be a good friend? What allegiances do you have towards your friends? How do you handle a situation where one friend is talking about another? How is this situation complicated…when one of the girls is the “popular girl?”
Kayla emphasized the importance of encouraging the girls to take ownership of their actions and reflect upon the times that they did not speak up when feeling hurt. She emphasized that rather than have the girls focus upon feelings of “victimization,” she would push them to articulate how they could improve their relationships. Throughout our months of conversations, as she deepened her connection to the girls, she posed questions about her role in encouraging positive communication.
I am trying to think of a constructive way to play out these issues…how do we communicate with one another when we have something to say that may hurt another’s feelings?…What could I have done to try and steer the conversation in another direction, while still giving the students an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns? What can I teach the students about communication that will allow them to communicate effectively with their peers…How to I teach them about communication in a way that speaks to them at their level?
Taboo Subjects: In or Out of Bounds?
Kayla candidly discussed the challenges of undertaking the function of group facilitator, emphasizing that while she valued her work, she is not a therapist. She recognized that as the girls became more self-aware, they felt more comfortable raising sensitive issues. Consequently, she began to feel that the boundaries of her role as educator had become less defined. For example, in the scenario of Tali and the cell phone, Kayla needed to exhibit sensitivity alongside authority. In reflection on the incident, Kayla recalled that when the girls disclosed to her, she felt that she was in “foreign territory,” jokingly sharing that she was being placed in a role that was beyond responding to queries of, “What do I do when I get my period?” While she empathized with the girls’ fears of telling their parents, she held firm that instances of harassment could not remain confidential; she would contact Tali’s parents, and stressed that the role of adults in their lives is to keep them safe. She then immediately connected to her enduring goal of helping the girls to self-reflect. Rather than lecturing, she facilitated a conversation around Tali’s sharing of the picture with her friends. She asked: What types of private information do we share? How does that sharing with friends affect Tali’s popularity status? Might she be enjoying the increase in attention? How did the other girls feel about Tali’s receipt of the graphic photograph? Kayla described her choice to aid the girls in exploring Tali’s perception that “this [cell phone photograph] is wrong but interesting, and will make me more popular.”
This example is but one of many times that Kayla acknowledged her expanded role. Throughout the year, she described the value of the Girls Advisory Group for the girls. In addition, she began to talk about the potential impact of these types of groups in other schools.
…hearing the kids talk about it is very obvious to me that this is something that has to be happening. In schools. Like the fact that the kids come up and say, “When’s our class, and are we having this class?” But they’re taking their lunch period to come. You know, and they’re there, they’re ready to go with their lunches, and they want it, like, they, I think that they feel like there’s this outlet for them to talk about these things that are going on in their lives.
As her work progressed, Kayla further described the relevance of in-school support for adolescent girls. She referred to the skeptics who maintain that attendance to socio-emotional issues detracts from the aims of Jewish day school education:
To the extent that you can have sort of a Jewish frame on it, I think is critical. The fact that we can sit and discuss Jewish texts and this idea – whether it’s shmirat halashon, or something to do with their bat mitzvahs, that this is sort of really a Jewish value. It feels like this is what our business is all about. Like, this is what we’re here to do. And I think having the sort of separate gender classes makes a difference. I think that they – I don’t think that we can accomplish the same things if the boys were in the class.
Impact of Professional Development
Role plays, journaling, and informal discussion are featured components of many Jewish day school advisory groups. What makes Kayla’s case distinctive is that she returned to her day school with a new lens through which to view her role and commitment to the female students, and voluntarily crafted an advisory position with her middle school girls. Kayla constantly framed her work with the girls as a “responsibility”:
I think of it more as how did I even get started with this idea to begin with?…it was after already having taken your course, and trying to figure out what to do with it. And I think that the whole reason that this began was because I felt strongly that as educators we have a responsibility to our children beyond the curriculum that’s taught in the classroom…but that we really are responsible for the social/emotional/spiritual lives of the children in our schools…And you know, we help them with this by teaching them Jewish values and by helping them to process the world around them. And so this started when I started seeing some of these issues coming up with girls, whether issues with boys, or issues with communication with their peers, or their bodies changing, and spoke with them and felt – and noticed that they felt they needed an outlet….And that it happens somewhat informally sometimes, but that we have a responsibility to ensure that it’s formally happening within our schools….
Kayla further reflected on the role of her graduate training:
The course was instrumental, because I think that it really brought to the forefront these issues…it’s there, it’s happening, and I think that the discussions that happened in class were always, “this is the theory and this is the research” and then the discussion always got back to “so how do we bring this into our schools?” And I think that that was really instrumental in helping me to think through that very question. You know, how do I want to bring this into my school, what do I do?
During our year-long conversation, Kayla expressed an understanding of her function as role model for developing what she refers to as “tools” for communication. Her remarks demonstrate that she viewed her work as part and parcel of her role as school educator.
And I don’t know that I would have thought of some of these issues that I talk about now with my students, about communication…using tools to navigate the world, and sort of helping to learn those tools, in a Jewish context, in a Jewish day school. That wasn’t part of my educational experience. And, I think that, I still reflect on sort of how am I as an educator and what am I imparting to my students and very conscious of, of trying to be conscious of my behavior, and how that has an impact…you learn so much from how people are in the world, and which is not discounting what they’re actually teaching you, but that you’re learning by observing how others are, how they interact with other people. And kids are smarter than any of us, they notice all of these things, and they internalize these things. And I think that there is a responsibility that we have… to be very conscious of that, and how that’s impacting the culture in a school.
Implications and Conclusions
Teacher educator programs fittingly strive to instill pedagogical content knowledge in Jewish subject areas (Feiman-Nemser, 2001, 2003; Shulman, 1987). Kayla’s case study suggests the benefits of striking a balance in pre-service training between exploring scholarly work around issues of gender and education, practical applications to teaching, and novice educators’ potential roles as change-agents in their schools (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Zeichner, 1994). Simultaneous examination of issues related to gender and education and fostering of self-reflexivity can promote engagement in praxis (Freire,1993), an ongoing cycle of reflection and action. It is this participation in praxis that leads to tangible changes and expansion in day school programming.
In addition to demonstrating the potential impact of teacher education programs, Kayla’s case exemplifies the need for ongoing professional development on gender and education within Jewish sites of learning. My year-long work with Kayla in the dual role of mentor and academic resource allowed her to pose questions, seek advice, and engage in collaborative dialogue. As Kayla suggests, this ongoing interchange supported her reconstructed approach to practice (Johnston, 1994): “…instead of it being thoughts going through my mind and you know, it’s the type of thing that can take many different directions…having someone to talk these things through with really helps make it happen….” At other points Kayla stated that our scheduled conversations required her to stay on-task with her planning for the group: “[You] need someone to get you back to the core issue…need to put the reflective time into your work.” This case study suggests that sustained mentoring and/or coaching opportunities on gender-related educational can promote change in practice.
Novice educators balances numerous competing pressures and demands, and are more apt to address complex issues connected to socio-emotional health and well-being when perceived as imperative, relevant, and inherent to teaching (Boler, 1999; Ellsworth, 1997; Kumashiro, 2000). School and university mentors can guide this process toward receptiveness. Persistent support ultimately serves to cultivate a perspective within Jewish education that “gender matters.”
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