Teach Like a Woman

It has taken me two weeks to think this one through aEditnd not even remotely because it has been half term.  I woke up at two in the morning a few nights ago with the alarming thought that I was possibly stealing someone else’s title for this blogpost. Cue scrambling round for my phone on the bedside table and googling the phrase.  Well, it turns out that you can Teach Like a Champion (thanks Mr Lemov), and you can Teach Like a Girl (if you are a ‘gospel centred woman’) and Teach Like a Pirate (I didn’t check, which I now regret). But no one has really talked about what it means to Teach Like a Woman.

There are people reading this who are already starting to object.  I can see you now, that little vein in your temple has started to throb at the mere thought that teaching like a woman might be a thing.  It’s not a thing yet. I haven’t even started to define it. Before you hit the comment button, maybe just let me explore the idea, first? So the idea comes from a long forgotten tweet.  I read an article about the Swedish Foreign Minister’s intent to practice “feminist foreign policy” in the face of ‘Russian macho agression” – it can be read about here.  While my brain processed the concept, it did what it usually does: it tried to relate the concept of what it would look like in an educational context. 

Can one ‘teach like a woman’? What does that even mean

The concept is problematic because without careful examination, it contains unhelpful value judgements. Our tendency towards binary opposition means that immediately, we have to question whether to teach like a woman means not to teach like a man. Once we start to dichotomise in that way, we face a raft of stereotypes that are, quite frankly, offensive. The Swedish Foreign Minister has created an opposition – her policy is predicated in opposition to what she perceives to be a male characteristic – that of aggression.  It doesn’t sit well with me to start claiming that male teaching is, at its heart, aggressive. Whatever shouty, man-thrusty teaching style that is.  And that teaching like a woman is doing the opposite of that. Feminine qualities are often seen as ‘soft’.  I return, once again to Phillip Zimbardo in The Guardian who claims that boys are underperforming “moodles” (his word) because the education system is feminised. 

I’m reluctant to define it, understandably, because if teaching like a man involves brashness, machismo and banter, woman-teaching probably involves emotions, diary writing and telling people how you feel.  I can’t believe I actually wrote that down. See! The danger is clear. Stereotypes ahoy. I’m just doing what Zimbardo is doing. 

Can we please move away from the idea that teaching like a woman is somehow the teaching equivalent of a three-day old soggy teabag? We use, possibly inappropriately, the phrases ‘man up’ and ‘be a man’ to mean positive things.  We are conditioned to believe it means to be ‘better’.  Where is the female equivalent of these phrases? It is an act of reclaiming gender positivity and does not have to be used in opposition to masculinity.This article – ‘Why Women Talk Less’ – outlines reasons why women are not more confident in their field, but highlights the need to avoid constructed frameworks of gender expectation. 

In the sprawling ridiculousness of his thoughts, Zimbardo acknowledges something that strikes a chord with me – and believe me, this surprises me. It is rare that I am so irked by an article that I write about it twice.  He says of men in education and society: “Men are opting out and women are opting in. Women are working harder at jobs, they’re working harder in school, and they are achieving – last year women had more of every single category of degree, even engineering. This is data from around the world. Now in many colleges there’s a big gap as boys are dropping out of school and college.” 

It seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong, that he is pointing out a quality of women that is to be celebrated!  While he doesn’t celebrate it, I can.  It says to me that women have qualities of independence, confidence and determination. They work hard, they reach for careers that have not traditionally been accessible to them, they achieve their goals. 

When you think about ‘teaching like a woman’ in this way, all of a sudden you have reframed the concept. For me, it comes down to this idea of what it means to be a ‘fierce’ woman – a blog that has received such positive feedback from men and women alike. How do we turn the qualities of a fierce woman into a framework for outstanding professional practice? If, as @Miss_Wilsey says – ‘fierce’ translates to ‘formidable, independent, empowered, resilient, caring and equal’, those words sound like a pretty good starting point to define what it means to ‘teach like a woman’.

If women are succeeding, there is a reason why.   The aforementioned are qualities that translate directly into the ethos of a school, a year team, a department.  They are qualities that can be instilled into a difficult group.  They are qualities that mean that boys and girls can achieve equally.  But I am not actually defining it here.  That’s a job for us all, I think.  Perhaps a job for the @WomenEd Team… 

Inevitably, I know what criticisms I will face for writing this. I’m anticipating the response: why do those positive characteristics have to be specific to women? Men can be those things too, someone will say.  In the interest of saving some time, I agree wholeheartedly.  Someone will say that this article is, quite frankly, offensive, and if a man had written an article what it means to teach like a man – there would be outrage, I tell you.  Again, to save time, I suggest that it would be fascinating to see what that article would say.  I’ve been following the @GoodMenProject on Twitter and they have started many such conversations. Why can’t we start a conversation about teaching like a woman when the profession is dominated by women? Don’t laugh at the word ‘dominated’. I know you want to. 

Let me know what you think.



  1. mainstreansen

    Another great blog and yes, has got me thinking hard about Teaching like a Woman – I like fierce as it suggests strength without machismo – the feminisation/machoisaton of education debate is so interesting and a worthwhile discussion point.

    • thenewstateswoman

      I think it’s wrongly tied to the debate on traditional vs progressive teaching too. Hard to have the discussion without accusations of ‘softness’

      • mainstreansen

        Yes that’s so true – I have very high expectations of students but recognise difference and circumstance – is nurture seen as feminine while resilience and grit masculine? I don’t know.

      • thenewstateswoman

        I think some people think it is. I worry about the rejection of nurture on the teaching debate, whether that is a feminine trait or otherwise. The polarisation of the debate draws gender lines possibly without intention.

      • thenewstateswoman

        It depends – I think they have been seen that way but in perpetuating that, aren’t we perpetuating a gender stereotype? If the association with nurture were seen as a powerful thing as opposed to ‘fluffy’ which is certainly the impression I get from watching conversations/debate on Twitter, then fine. I don’t think there is a kudos attached to the terms nurture, SEN and differentiation – not sure whether it’s a pedagogy think or a woman thing.

      • mainstreansen

        True – I was told not to get labelled as being good ‘at SEN’ as I was too clever. I actually took that advice to begin with and went Head of Sixth and English route – it was not until much later I realised SEN/differentiation/nurture was central to a successful education system as it is the most complex part.

      • mainstreansen

        I don’t know – teaching the ‘clever’ kids/top sets seem to hold kudos for some I think – despite it being much more challenging to teach mixed ability or students who are more complex. Interesting. Not sure how wide spread that is – might just be my experiences.

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