Feminism is everywhere, but so is sexism. Do teachers understand what this means in the classroom?

Holly Maguire.

When I was in Year 10, feminism was a word I vaguely associated with not wearing a bra, hating men and setting things on fire. But the world has moved on. Last term, one of my Year 10 GCSE students told the class that men taking birth control pills and exercising responsibility for their sexuality was “just basic feminism”.

Young people’s relationship to feminism has changed. Beyonce is now a feminist. ‘No More Page 3’ campaigners won the argument. #Sayhername, honouring black women and girls killed by US police, happened. Social media made my students aware of these things.

But do teachers understand this change and its implications?

This progress has been coupled with non-compulsory PSHE in schools, allowing many schools to opt-out completely or to rely on external organisations to deliver one-off workshops. This can result in a ‘pass the buck’ attitude towards equality and tolerance.

I’m an English teacher in a mixed London comprehensive. Part of my role is to be a ‘permission-giver’: to start the test, to go to the toilet, to go to lunch. But I’m aware that I also give permission to students’ views and ideas. For example, if I fail to discipline homophobic comments as seriously as I do racist ones, I create the expectation that homophobia is not as serious as racism. Teachers need to be confident giving permission to feminist ideas if we are going to perpetuate the social change occurring online. We need to be able to promote and entrench feminism every day in schools.

Part of the problem in doing this is that we are increasingly relying on teachers’ own common sense or understanding when dealing with student prejudices, rather than any up-to-date training. How many teachers can explain the Equality Act to students? Or clearly explain why “Black Lives Matter” is not the same as “all lives matter”? When many of us grew up in a school culture where sexual harassment was ‘banter’, how can we ensure we take it seriously enough in our own classrooms?

For example, some teachers reprimand students for wearing skirts that “distract the boys”, unaware that this is ‘bodyshaming’ (which is also being combatted through social media hashtags such as #iammorethanadistraction). Our ignorance can lead our students to rely on internet forums and hashtags in preference to the adults they see every day. And isn’t this what Prevent – the strategy to protect young people from being drawn into terrorism – was designed to address?

I’ve also seen how successfully a school can address a problem that may be systemic elsewhere. For example, a friend of mine is very open about menstruation because it wasn’t seen as taboo at her school, while I would never have dreamed of asking a teacher to borrow a tampon. I know of schools where LGBT+ culture is promoted and supported through lunchtime clubs, and a girls’ school where Maths is the most popular A level. Different schools do different things well, which is why we need to learn from each other.

Despite a growing awareness of feminism, there is, of course, still a long way to go. As an English teacher, I have considerable opportunity to engage with my students’ cultural reference points. Reading and responding to students’ work is a central part of my job, and as a result I spend a lot of my time questioning and challenging student comments about gender and sexuality.

Then I agonise over whether I’ve done this appropriately – in the pub with fellow teachers. This is where the best conversations happen, casually and without fear of judgment:

“My school had this great CPD about that.” “I would have used this YouTube clip.” “There’s an excellent stimulus to have a discussion about that on this website.” “I had a teacher who did an assembly on that for us.” Or, occasionally, “It sounds like you handled it fine, stop worrying.”

I suspect that teachers somewhere are integrating ‘intersectional feminism’ into their teaching perfectly and I want to know who they are. Intersectionality is a theoretical concept to explain feminism that explores the intersecting power relations between categories such as race, class and gender.

So I’ve started Teaching Feminists, a Facebook group for teachers to share best practice on promoting intersectional feminism in schools. I want teachers to share resources, clips, stock images (finding positive images of women of colour to illustrate powerpoints is one of my time drainers) as well as experiences they have in their schools.

How would you respond to the following discussion points from teachers?

  • “The girls in my key stage three class (ages 11-14) are all lively and speak up in lessons, while my Year 10 and 11 girls (ages 14-16) rarely volunteer to speak and tend to allow the boys to dominate. What can I do to combat this? Any strategies that work?”
  • “You rearrange your Year 7 class’s seating plan. You move one dominant boy in the class next to a quieter student. He protests that he doesn’t want to sit there because that student is ‘gay’. What do you do?”

If you feel like the solutions to these are obvious, that’s great and I would love to to have you post your ideas.

Teachers, get in contact – what can we do to make schools more feminist? How can we promote equality each and every day in a genuine way? I want to hear about experimental approaches as well as embedded policies, about one-off conversations as well effective lesson plans, and how teachers can support other teachers in doing this meaningfully.

When teachers call out sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism it enables students to do the same. We feel comfortable doing this through having ‘sounding boards’, the support of our colleagues and leaders and knowing we can do it in an effective way. I hope that Teaching Feminists can be one sounding board to help teachers do this day to day.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/teachingfeminists?fref=ts or email

teachingfeminists@gmail.com  Holly Maguire teaches in a London comprehensive school.

Recognising teachers as agents of change

Hanna Retallack and Jessica Ringrose

The Gender and Education Association is part of a collaborative project linking schools with academics to facilitate Gender Equality and Feminism clubs. The GELS (Gender Equality Leadership in Schools) network has emerged out of these partnerships and works to help connect up schools with non-governmental organizations promoting gender equalities in education across England and Wales.

We have often struggled to find the best way to connect with a wider range of teachers, who can be caught between the tick-box culture of testing and the desire to cultivate critical thinkers in the classroom. Unfortunately, it can be all too easy to imagine that teachers themselves are part of the problem, promoting a culture of gendered norms and ‘risky’ sexuality that further classifies students according to stereotypes of gender, race and class identity. Our aim is to recognize and reward the difficult, relentless and often unsupported work of teachers who try to consciousness-raise with radical pedagogies, and cultivate and support their students’ activism and ideas for social change.

When Holly Maguire approached us with an idea for connecting feminist teachers around the UK, one of the key approaches she outlined was intersectionality – seeking to understand women’s social positions in a grid of power defined by multiple forms of oppression, such as by race, class and sexuality. Pioneered by black feminists to challenge white feminist erasures of both race and class struggles in early women’s movements, intersectionality is increasingly mainstream in ‘fourth wave’ feminism.

As white, middle class women attempting to bring feminism into schools we had to make sure that our understanding of feminism recognized the many ways that different types of oppression intersect. As a newly qualified teacher, Holly was concerned that UK teacher education does not give training in how to deal with the complexities of the raced, classed, gendered and sexualized experiences of young people today. Holly’s response is to connect teachers across the UK who want teach through a social-justice lens. Her aim is to encourage teachers to feel confident in facing up to and tackling everyday sexism, racism, homophobia and ableism and to bring the connections between these into staff meetings and their lessons to make schools better and safer for all.

GEA GELS is really excited to be supporting Holly’s vision, and partnering with her Teaching Feminists initiative. Our joint goal is to bring together a network of feminist teachers who can share ideas, resources and wisdom across online networks and in person so that more teachers feel empowered to bring their intersectional feminist beliefs into their classrooms and across their schools. For more information and to join the online network see the Facebook Page.

In the autumn we will be hosting a workshop on feminism in teacher education at the UCL Institute of Education. For further information contact: hanna.retallack.14@ucl.ac.uk

Hanna Retallack is a PhD candidate at the UCL Institute of Education where she is researching feminist groups in schools. Alongside her academic work, Hanna teaches secondary school English Literature and a feminist course in a London school. Hanna co-runs GELS

Jessica Ringrose is a Professor at UCL Institute of Education who specializes in Feminism in Education. She is the co-chair of the Gender and Education Association and she leads the MA course Social Justice and Education.




Illustration by Pixabay




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Posted in Teachers and teaching assistants, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
6 comments on “Feminism is everywhere, but so is sexism. Do teachers understand what this means in the classroom?
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  2. […] Hillary Clinton (a White woman), and these statistics highlighted the importance of addressing the intersections of racism, sexism and class to understand how some women will identify with a misogynistic white male before someone of their […]

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