So what impact does this have on our little astronauts? Education at elementary level is now overwhelmingly dominated by women. The latest figures from the World Bank show that 86% of all teachers in Germany are women, one percent less than the United Kingdom and the United States. In elementary school students generally stay with their one teacher throughout the day and thus awareness of the responsibility of socialisation at this level is essential. Where a profession with a heavy pastoral obligation is so dominated by one gender, it is important that there is an understanding that boys and girls are indeed different and that it takes being socially conscious to allow both genders to flourish. Sadly, it is sometimes the case that instead, boys are forced to be less bold astronaut and more proper princess.
I recently played with my daughter in a local playground. Three classes from a local elementary school were there. Three female teachers sat on a bench and chatted and observed the group. All of the girls played on the slides and various grappling equipment. The boys, of which there were only four, went to the sand pit with a grand plan. In the pit there was a wooden viaduct and a hand pump to allow water to flow to all parts of the pit. The boys carefully planned what parts of the viaduct to seal so as to direct the flow of water to two large reservoirs that they wanted to make leak-proof. Before long one of the boys approached me as I played with my daughter nearby and asked me to look at what they had built. They were rightly proud. As a group they had planned where and how to situate their reservoirs, who should pump the water, who would control the water flow in the viaduct and who would shore up the walls of sand around their project. It was a wonderful example of planning, teamwork and creativity. It was all the more impressive as the group consisted of an introverted German boy, one rather overweight German boy who could easily be the target of nasty comments, a Turkish boy and a Russian. It was a mini UN hydro project and the group clearly bonded having a singular purpose.
As the boys enthusiastically discussed their project, an irate teacher arrived. She chastised them for not heeding her call for the group to assemble to return to school. Truthfully, I had not heard her call from the bench either. She was joined by another who criticised the boys for having wet and sandy shoes. “I told you not to get dirty,” she scolded. The result was that there was no recognition given to the work the boys had completed and instead they were criticised for minor, even pedantic, flouting of the rules. As the students left the playground the boys were split up and placed variously at the front, centre and back of the group to avoid contact with any other boy. It was a thoroughly disheartening scene and the message seemed clear: if you cannot behave like the girls you will be punished.
It is a theme that I have noticed in many of my classroom visits. Where there is a time-out zone or desk at the front of the room for misbehaving students, it is inevitably filled by a boy. In the many staffrooms I have sat in it is most common that teachers will complain about the boisterous behaviour of a boy. And it is my experience, speaking with male elementary school teachers, that they too will often notice a difference in how male and female teachers relate to boys. I recall an instance where a former male colleague of mine left a staff meeting furious. He had just had a very heated argument with several of his (all female) colleagues wherein he felt that every boy that needed to move about or who spoke too loudly was being labelled a nuisance. In fact, he argued that the difference in management between him and his female colleagues was so great that where he saw typically lively boys, they had in several cases, without official consultation with a professional, made diagnoses of ADHD for several boys.
The point in all of this is not that we need a gender balance in teaching. A good teacher is a good teacher regardless of gender. The issue is that outside of school we tell boys to be astronauts, risk-takers and bold men of action but too often in class we expect them to behave like princesses. The reality is that teaching at the elementary level is dominated by female teachers many of whom will have come through a socialisation process that has left them risk-averse and hesitant. In the long term this requires these teachers to adopt a growth-mindset so that instead of expecting boys to take on a socialisation role that failed themselves they will come to see that sometimes a wet and sandy shoe is well worth the mess.
In the meantime a great starting-point to help both boys and girls to be astronauts is to adopt a set of learning mindsets that typify the character of students in a given school, much like the IB Learner Profile. These should require all teachers to be socially conscious and they should be deeply embedded in all planning and teaching. By institutionalising mindsets such as risk-taking, action and curiosity and by promoting these as a mark of success in our students, all teachers, male and female, are more likely to produce confident astronauts of both genders. Had there been defined mindsets that every teacher at that playground believed in and practised I would like to think that instead of seeing sandy, wet shoes they would have seen creative thinkers, risk-takers and future astronauts.