What’s sex got to do with it?

Mr. Shakes passed on this article which reports on the findings of a study whose author says that “having a teacher of the opposite sex hurts a student’s academic progress.” Though the author, Thomas Dee, an associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College and visiting scholar at Stanford University, cautions that no “fast conclusions” should be drawn about his work, the article makes certain to tie it into “the Boy Crisis” nonetheless, by pointing out: “His study comes as the proportion of male teachers is at its lowest level in 40 years. Roughly 80 percent of teachers in U.S. public schools are women.”

My first response to the finding is that it’s totally out of line with my experience. I had favorite teachers of both sexes in all different subjects, and I can’t say at all that the sex of an instructor mattered one way or another to my academic success or interest in a subject.

My second response is that what is being presented as an issue of sex, is really an issue of sexism.

Dee also contends that gender influences attitudes.

For example, with a female teacher, boys were more likely to be seen as disruptive. Girls were less likely to be considered inattentive or disorderly.
With a female teacher, boys were more likely to be seen as disruptive. That’s an interesting way of putting it, because it implies that the female teacher is just viewing boys as disruptive, but I remember being in class with plenty of boys who simply didn’t show the same respect to our female teachers as they did to our male teachers. And not just in class, but even in how they spoke about them outside of class. A difficult male teacher was just a “hard-ass,” but a difficult female teacher was a “bitch.” Certainly, there may be issues of preference among female teachers, but engaging the possibility shouldn’t come at the expense of a rigorous scrutiny of institutionalized sexism—which includes such socialization as male gym teachers and coaches denigrating their male charges as “ladies” in the same environment in which women are authority figures.

In a class taught by a man, girls were more likely to say the subject was not useful for their future. They were less likely to look forward to the class or to ask questions.
Again, is that simply because girls lack the imagination to see how a subject taught by a male could be useful to their future, or is there an institutionalized problem of subtle and/or overt discouragement against girls seeing a future in the maths and sciences (disciplines in which the majority of male teachers are employed)? We know that there are still serious advanced-educational and professional hurdles for women in these fields; it’s not illogical to believe that male teachers share the biases of other men in the field outside teaching in middle- and high schools.

Dee’s findings are interesting and undoubtedly provocative; I just hope they provoke the right follow-up questions.

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