My 25th college reunion was last weekend. I didn’t go, but the event prompted an amazing string of Facebook messages with three of my closest friends from those days. Although we are spread all over the USA and into the Middle East, we’ve been able to reconnect electronically, which has been an unexpected gift. I’m sure I’ll post about the joys of social media sometime soon. Tonight I want to write about what it means to be a teacher and a feminist.
I went to a high-powered college during the Reagan ’80s. It was the era of Greed, the era of Jane Fonda, and the era of Sandra Day O’Connor making history. Women were seizing power everywhere. When I began my freshman year in 1981, I intended to become an international economist. I planned to work for the World Bank and help save struggling countries. A year later, I found myself teaching English to children from Central America as part of a social action project, and my fate was sealed. If you really want to change the world, start with the children. 25 years after graduating, I can look back with gratitude from the middle of my journey as an educator.
When I decided to become a teacher, my acquaintances were dismissive. “You’re wasting your potential” was a common refrain. Many of my classmates went immediately into graduate programs in law, medicine or business. Others joined the Foreign Service, or started partnership tracks at Big 8 accounting firms (that was way before ENRON and the demise of Arthur Andersen. But I digress…). Social status and success were firmly attached to earning potential. Against those measures, teachers were low on the approval scales.
Over the years, I have earned a couple of other degrees and moved past the classroom, but never out of schools. I want to say right here that teaching is one of the most empowering opportunities for women, and that power is why I continue to do this work. My female graduate students have heard this soapbox speech before, and I continue to give it each year.
When my mother was a college student in the early 1960s, the “nice girls” got jobs as teachers and nurses, or maybe as secretaries. The girls who were willing to forego marriage became the pioneers in more male-dominated careers. Teaching and nursing were seen as the helping professions; the jobs that were appropriate for young wives and mothers. Those jobs generally kept women fairly close to their homes. The pay was not large, but most of the teachers and nurses were married; their husbands provided the “serious” income for their families (Think about it: In a way, hetero-sexist society has subsidized the teaching profession). Many women took time off from work when their children were little. Those were the infant days of the feminist movement. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the year I was born. “The problem that has no name” became the catch phrase for many young suburban mothers, and they encouraged their daughters to follow paths that they had not taken.
Out of that desire to expand their horizons, many women rejected safe choices and opened doors for my generation. When I became a teacher in the mid 1980s, it was in part to reclaim something–to reshape it for a new era. Teaching is still a profession dominated by women, and I am proud to be among them. It is one of the only jobs I know where I can form strong relationships with women who are 20 years younger than I am, 20 years older than I am, and everyone in between. I don’t know where else I could have found so many mentors, and where I would have had the opportunity to share my experiences with others.
There is a long way to go. Salaries need to increase. Professional status needs to be enhanced. Policies about accountability and educational standards need to be addressed. The great Brazilian educator and activist Paolo Freire wrote in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”
This type of empowered reflection is at the heart of my work. It defines the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of people I want to educate.