Reflections From A Former Elementary School Teacher

28 Aug

It’s three weeks into this school year, and I’m settling into this new role as an elementary school parent. I have to say, being on this side of the classroom door has been a tremendous eye-opener. This time of year typically elicits nostalgic feelings for my days in the classroom, but now that I’m in the school environment on a daily basis, I am constantly reflecting on my time as a teacher.

image credit: MS Office Clip Art

It’s been 6 years since I’ve put up bulletin boards, arranged desks or created a classroom schedule.  I remember those days well and all the thought and consideration that went into establishing certain classroom routines. And while I fondly recall many of the classroom management strategies I implemented year after year, the rationale behind those approaches is somewhat foggy. Becoming a parent has certainly changed my lens, but the project I have been a part of at ASU has really shifted my thinking when it comes to peer relationships and creating a sense of community. For the past two and a half years, my work on the Sanford Harmony Program has me focusing on supporting children, teachers and parents in improving relationships.  And while we place specific attention on combatting gender segregation and gender stereotypes, the work we are doing supports inclusive behaviors and attitudes on a much broader level.

Now with so many decisions teachers make to positively impact the physical and social environment in the classroom, it may seem a bit strange that I have locked into one specific practice – the seating arrangement. By seating arrangement, I don’t mean that I have been thinking back on the physical layout of furniture in my classroom, but rather the choices I made to mix-up boys and girls whenever possible. And just as I have noticed in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, I know that I sat my students at tables with an intentionally equal girl/boy ratio. But why did I do that? Was I attempting to create groups that were gender balanced? Probably. Was I seeking to give my students an opportunity to sit with a variety of classmates? Maybe. Was I hoping to promote positive, balanced friendships between boys and girls? I don’t know. Was I aiming to keep the socializing down to a minimum? It’s possible….

Yeah, it is possible. Because sitting “boy-girl” would ensure that they wouldn’t really be sitting with their “friends,” right? And that is why I’m fixated on the thinking that went into that decision (that and my predisposition for obsessive thoughts). Looking back it seems that some efforts I made to focus on equality and celebrate diversity may have been somewhat superficial.  I can see now that my personal assumptions about boy-girl friendships played out in public ways. By making assumptions about whom kids would like to be friends with, I limited the choices for them. Yes I sat students at mixed gender tables to create a sense of balance, but I wish I had done so with the intention of creating opportunities for girls and boys to work together in positive, collaborative, and cooperative ways. Instead of wanting to keep the noise level down, I should have wanted boys and girls to learn from and about each other. And instead of perpetuating the cycle of girls and boys honing their communication and social skills in separate and segregated gender peer groups, I could have helped to guide boys and girls in developing skills in collaboration with each other and establishing friendships that would lay the foundation for healthy balanced relationships throughout their lifetimes.

I don’t know if I’ll ever end up back in the classroom, but one thing is certain, the lens from which I view peer relationships has been altered in a significant way. And as I move forward in my current role as an elementary school parent, I will keep in mind the importance of providing opportunities to cultivate new friendships and keep my own assumptions in check.

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4 Responses to “Reflections From A Former Elementary School Teacher”

  1. Nina Badzin August 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    I love the thought you put into your blog posts and into the issues you’re addressing. Very honest to realize it was probably for the noise level. It makes logical sense!

    • Hillary Manaster August 29, 2012 at 10:07 am #

      Thanks Nina! Not to say that efforts to reduce the noise level are not important 😉 It is strange though to think back and realize that – although I meant well – my actions/attitudes/assumptions may have contributed to children becoming *less *comfortable with one another rather than more comfortable. I hope your crew is off to a great start this school year! I love your new site.

  2. Stacy August 29, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I love this post. I notice that all of my kids’ teachers intentially mix up the boys and girls at their work tables, but I wonder if they have really thought about why they do that. Furthermore, I wonder if they realize what a great opportunity they have already set up to make a point of helping boys and girls interact positively with each other. I remember my daughter’s Kindergarten teacher apologizing to me that my daughter was the only girl at a table of boys. I was surprised by the comment and brushed it off at the time, but I wish I would have assured her that it wasn’t a problem but rather an opportunity. I wish I would have told her that I hoped she would have presented it to the kids that way.

  3. Andie Bright August 29, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    I was thinking about this exact same issue yesterday. I’m a UK primary school teacher by training but haven’t taught in years and am currently a SAHM to two pre-school daughters. I was thinking about my own experience as an 11 year-old (where we sat boy-girl in fixed positions for the whole year) in relation to the stuff I’ve been reading on the Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies Blog (where Melissa Wardy regularly references the work of the Sanford Harmony Program) I have little doubt that it was done in those days (early 80s) to ensure more focus ie we weren’t sitting with our ‘real’ friends. But it did have the effect of ‘forcing’ us to communicate with boys (and vice versa).
    It is one of the most widespread assumptions I’ve found among parents of school age children – that they will naturally prefer same-sex friendships – but once you question it, it seems ridiculous! At the moment my children (age 1.5 and 3) don’t categorise their friends by gender (or even age – ha ha!) But I’m interested to see at which point they start to do so, and how it is related to the raft of other assumptions that underpin the same-sex friendship idea: that they are ‘into’ different things (princesses/dolls vs. vehicles/weapons presumably): that boys play ‘roughly’ while girls are innately more gentle and sociable; I’m sure there are more I will continue to discover. I will challenge each and every one of these ideas and strive to encourage my children to develop amazing healthy relationships with both sexes. It’s a shame this may take extra effort (as swimming against the popular tide always does) but I’m up for it! And I will continue to be inspired by what the SHP is doing. It’s going to be an interesting ride… :o)

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