Gender-informed Teacher Education?

Recently, several feminist teacher educators have engaged in synthesizing the Canadian research in gender issues in teacher education. We have all been involved in teacher education for a number of years, and during that time we have all been concerned about gender issues in education. We have taught courses related to gender and pedagogy, shared our research relating to gender and education, and investigated issues of gender in a range of ways. We have been actively involved in our national association Canadian Association for the Study of Women and Education.  We thought it was, then, an easy matter to agree to write this piece.  Until, that is, we set out to prepare writing the chapter. After much searching, we were concerned to find that, despite the fine Canadian scholarship in a range of areas related to gender, there was very little research reported in relation to gendered issues in initial teacher education.

There are, of course, many reasons that issues of gender do not find a place in teacher education programs, of course. “Teacher Education” is contested space, as many perspectives claim space in the often short teacher education program. Students need to develop understanding in curriculum (resources, strategies, theories), assessment and reporting, the nature of child and youth development, organizational and managerial skills, professional identity, professional responsibility, foundational understandings, diversity (disability, culture, race, sexual orientation, class, gender) – and the interaction of all of these. In light of pressing needs to enable students to function effectively in classrooms, and mindful of the requirements of external university and Ministry regulation, it is understandable that gender is lost in the long list of ‘need to know’ areas. Seen as a ‘training’ ground, students in teacher education programs are required (and expect) to learn skills enabling them to provide effective learning experiences to their pupils, demonstrated to them by more experienced instructors and mentor teachers. More in-depth teacher ‘education’, delving deeply into social issues, is often not possible given the competing agendas and discourses of teacher education programs and length of teacher education programs.

Gender cross-cuts all aspects of teacher education, but in doing so is often lost in the conversation. Gender is also often relegated to ‘feminist’ instructors who are able to weave gendered discourse into other aspects of the program, such as curriculum (materials chosen, language used), management (selecting female as well as male students), historical understandings of gender, and teacher identity. However, as Kirk (2005) notes, lack of attention to gender equity continues to devalue the profession for all. She suggests that it is “ultimately disempowering for both men and women if policy further entrenches divisions of labour along gender lines, narrows the choices available to men and to women, and promotes gendered identities for women teachers that depend largely upon ‘natural’ nurturing, caring and child-rearing abilities” (p.638). Gender, in all ways we consider it, has enormous influence on education generally, and teacher education more specifically. Too often, however, discussions of gender become personal and anecdotal; as we have recognized, there is limited research (particularly in a Canadian context) that relates to ways that gender, as a sociocultural construct, influences teacher education programs, the gendered make-up of teacher education programs, the genderedness of instructors, and discussions of gendered media-fueled myths. And despite the importance of gender in our profession, we (the authors) recognize the need for a more focused research agenda exploring this issue in initial teacher education programs.

There are, as Connell (1987) suggests, many tensions and confusions about the term ‘gender’, as it relates to biology, socialization, sexuality, integration with class, race, and cultural difference. It is important for us, then, to begin with a definition of ‘gender’ that shapes our discussion. When we think of gender many ideas come to mind. In general terms, gender we understand gender to be a sociocultural construct that moves beyond biological sex/ determinism and that in part defines our role in society. As defined by de Lauretis (1987), gender is “not a property of bodies or something originally existent in human beings … it is the product and process of various social technologies, institutional discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life.” Drawing on a feminist understanding about gender, particularly as it relates to power, the social constructivist framework explains that there is no essential or distinct character that is feminine or masculine. Rather, behaviours are influenced by a range of factors including class, culture, ability, religion, age, body shape, and sexual preference.

Canada is very fortunate in having a national organization devoted to exploring issues of gender in education and teacher education, i.e., the Canadian Association for the Study of Women and Education (CASWE canadianwomenineducation.net), with the accompanying special interest group Queer Studies in Education and Culture (QSEC). This organization disseminates research studies relating to gender and education at all levels and offers a forum for exposing vital components of contemporary education that are frequently rendered invisible by existing pedagogy, curriculum, philosophy, policy, and school organization. Social justice and equity concerns have been constructed in particular ways with a subtle or even conspicuous avoidance of alternative interpretations. Issues of gender pervade social justice and equity in aspects of existing pedagogy, curriculum, philosophy, policy and school organization.The existence of CASWE within the larger organization of the Canadian Society of Studies in Education provides a national platform for gender issues to be addressed alongside issues in education.

However, students in initial teacher education programs who want to consider gender issues have to do it using their own initiative despite the fact that gender is still a very relevant and important issue and should be considered by all pre-service teachers. Without the formal support and attention in teacher education programs, the findings of a few ‘feminist’ students and instructors will likely have little or no impact on prospective teachers, their future students, or society at large.

By Kathy Sanford, Sarah  Bonsor Kurki, Lisa Starr, Jeanne Humphries, Emily Tench

References

Connell, R. (1987). Gender and power: Society, the person, and sexual politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

De Lauretis, T. (1987). Technologies of Gener: Essays on Theory, Film, & Fiction. Indiana University Press.

Kirk, J. (2005). Gender, Education, and Development: Are Women Teachers Women in Development?  In Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 26(special issue). Pp. 633-649.

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