That caveat aside I am, for all intents and purposes, a teacher. Just like the ones that you used to have, who would say things like “students if you’re not quiet now we can do this at lunchtime” (sometimes I say this!). One of the discoveries of being on the other side of the staffroom door is that teachers are, despite teacherly-attitude to the contrary, exactly like everyone else. This means that we don’t really want to stay in at lunchtime in order to instill some discipline in our uncaring students. Sadly it also means that teachers are beset with the usual prejudices. Just as within the rest of the world in our schools young women are repeatedly judged by their looks.
This week I was waiting for a student to join one of my classes. Every time I talked to another staff member about her they said some variety of the following “You’ll love her, she works so hard. Also she is very pretty.” Sometimes the fact that she was pretty came first! This made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. Her prettiness is clearly unimportant in her academic abilities but still it was remarked upon. It seemed the other teachers were unable to stop themselves from mentioning it.
In the above example the other teachers seemed to be suggesting that this student was worthy of greater attention from her teachers because of how she looked. Attention is a keyword when talking about beautyism in the classroom because a whole lot of teaching is based on getting and keeping the attention of your students. Furthermore, being the idealistic teacher that I am, I believe students who get more of my attention are more likely to succeed at school.
It is wrong that we grant greater attention to female students who are good looking. However, pretty girls who distract male students attention in class are also quickly judged unworthy of teacher attention. As with everywhere, it is desirable to be “pretty” but only if you’re pretty in certain ways.
Attention seeking behaviours of boys are deemed cheeky. Boys who act the class clown are maybe reprimanded and sometimes punished with detention, but invariably teachers will make an ongoing effort to get them engaged in class work. If you are a pretty girl who distracts the attention of the male students in your class, in my experience you are not so lucky. Teachers in the staffroom will talk about the length of your skirt and the colour of your makeup, they will even explicitly call you out for being a slut. And guess what? They won’t help you catch up in class.
Disclaimer, disclaimer: Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. These are just my (limited) experiences of teaching and talking to other teachers. In fact, on the macro level the data is against me, everything I have seen in the last twenty years of education research suggests that girls out-perform boys in almost all subject areas. Furthermore, maybe I am putting too much stock in the importance of having the attention of a teacher. There are also issues around class that intersect with gender in this area (there is at least another blogpost in that, probably a book).
However, my experience has been that school systems often work to reinforce and perpetuate the societal norm that women and girls should be judged on their looks, and that there success is dependent upon them. It is so easy to fall into the trap of reinforcing this. Difficult teenage girls are fairly terrifying. Plus, they can totally remind you of when you were in high school when you were the one with the sneakers and she is clearly the kind of girl that had the high heels and the shorts skirts. So, one promise I’m going to make as a young teacher is not to reinforce this idea, not to support the pretty girl just because she is pretty and not to stop helping the difficult girl. If anything we should all be working not to confirm the ridiculous distinctions made by Taylor Swift songs, surely?