As a teacher or educator, you’ll likely have noticed a wide range of actions or behaviours, big or small, that indicate a need to tackle toxic masculinity in the classroom.
This considered post delves into the topic with interesting insights and useful tips that can be used across any classroom environment.
Masculinity and Toxic Masculinity
Firstly, there is an important distinction to be made between masculinity and toxic masculinity, as we are not implying that masculinity itself is toxic. Masculinity describes the qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men and boys.
On the other hand, toxic masculinity is a series of harmful beliefs about the way men and boys should behave, which often involves putting down women, girls and femininity.
Toxic masculinity encourages men and boys to be aggressive and competitive, and discourages them from expressing emotion or vulnerability. In equal parts, it discourages women and girls from leadership and assertiveness, instead encouraging them to be quiet and submissive.
As teachers, it is easy to fall into the habit of relying on socially constructed gender norms in the classroom without realising the negative effects.
Here are some of our top tips for creating a gender-inclusive classroom environment that discourages toxic masculinity:
1. Speak out against sexist everyday phrases
Although we educators often know better than to use common phrases with sexist connotations, young people may not. Many everyday phrases that seem innocuous do, in fact, contribute to sexism and toxic masculinity.
For example, phrases such as ‘grow a pair’ and ‘man up’ subscribe to the idea that men have to be strong, and that if they show vulnerability or emotion, it means that they are not masculine enough.
In the same vein, describing a girl as ‘hysterical’ or saying that something ‘isn’t very ladylike’ can be harmful to women and girls, as these phrases solidify toxic expectations for how women and girls should behave.
Equally, saying ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘you’re a girl, you should know better’ contributes to the lack of gender equality, both in the classroom and in society, by demonstrating that our culture has different expectations for boys and for girls.
All of these phrases, though not uncommon, have no place in the classroom, and only serve to further sexism and toxic masculinity. When we hear students talking in this way, it is an opportunity for us to pause and explain why their comment reinforces sexism and toxic masculinity.
2. When splitting your class into groups, try to avoid splitting according to gender
Many of us are guilty of this, as it may not appear harmful on the surface. Students may even request to be split according to gender. Although a healthy level of competition is often a great motivator, when it is centred around gender, we may be unintentionally pitting genders against each other in a way that feeds into sexism.
This environment may lead to students unintentionally making sexist remarks in the interest of competition. Splitting the class this way is also not very inclusive when we consider that some students may be non-binary.
A better way to encourage healthy competition in the classroom would be to split students in a different way. For example, alphabetically, according to where they sit in the classroom or by assigning each student a number.
3. Try to avoid (or subvert) gender stereotypes
Although gender stereotypes may be ingrained in all of us, there are small changes we can make as educators to avoid passing on internalised concepts of masculinity and femininity to students.
We can encourage boys to understand and express their emotions during class discussions, encourage girls to take control and lead, and teach all students to practise respect. We can also make an effort to challenge students’ expectations of gender in the classroom.
For example, Beyond RSE’s Stereotypes and Prejudice Lesson Pack is a great tool for this. It gives students the tools to challenge subconscious attitudes based on gender, race and disability, as well as sparking discussions on how to avoid stereotyping in future.
4. When teaching about typically gendered topics, involve students of all genders
Some RSE topics may be typically gendered, for example, periods. The beliefs and attitudes that are typical of toxic masculinity often include negative stereotypes around periods.
This may lead boys and men to assume that periods are dirty, or they may incorrectly associate female dominance or assertiveness with menstruation. These kinds of attitudes are sexist and used to put women down.
When teaching about periods (or any typically gendered topics), calling on male students in class and ensuring they engage with the content is important. Being aware of issues that may not directly impact them not only teaches empathy, but also positively impacts their relationships with, and understanding of women and girls.
Actions like these allow us to gradually break down toxic masculinity through teaching and learning. Equally, by avoiding female-only language, we can be inclusive and subvert gender expectations. This may include talking about non-binary people and transgender men when discussing periods.
Beyond’s Understanding Periods Lesson Pack is an inclusive tool, which can be used with a mixed-gender class and includes diverse examples to help young people learn about periods.
5. Encourage students of all genders to take part in a variety of extra-curricular activities
Although these activities may take place outside of the classroom, it is often something that teachers can have an effect on.
When talking to our students about hobbies, try to encourage them to take part in activities that may not stereotypically be associated with their gender. This broadens the minds and lives of young people, giving them more opportunities to find something they enjoy.
Encourage boys to take part in school plays or choir events and encourage girls to take part in sports like football or clubs related to STEM, such as science club or computing. If your school doesn’t have certain clubs or extracurriculars, inspire students to access different activities outside of school or, better yet, set up your own clubs that welcome all genders.
Young people often look to their teachers, form tutors or other pastoral leaders for guidance and inspiration, so why not use this opportunity to ensure that all young people know that no activity or hobby is off limits to their gender.
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