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Teacher’s Perspective: Gender Equality in the Middle-School Classroom and Empowering Girls to Shoot for the STEM Stars

As I reflect upon how I ran my own math classroom, I start examining the difference between the girls and boys in middle school, and more importantly, how I approached them. I would like to say I treated all of my students the same by setting high expectations—requiring their best in both their work and participation, despite gender. My goal was to encourage my students to excel and to rise above, which often took them out of their comfort zone. In doing this, I sometimes heard “That’s not fair!” to which my favorite response was “Fair doesn’t always mean equal.” It’s not fair to assign a student with a learning disability the same homework as a student who is working a grade level or above, but it is equal to have high expectations for each student to perform at THEIR highest level. My reflection led me to this question: “What does the term fair mean when talking about gender equality?”

Ways to treat boys and girls equally:

  • Continually raise expectations, and when students don’t rise to the expectation, coach them through the struggle. We often learn more from our mistakes than our successes. The bottom line is that when you don’t try, you don’t get results.
  • Correct students who state that their parents have never been good at math, so by extension, they won’t be good at math either. This belief allows the student to be complacent about not being satisfactory in math.
  • Require integrity and respect among all classmates.
  • Encourage all students to join OM, MATHCOUNTS, and other math clubs and competitions. This is especially important to promote across genders because not all teachers encourage both girls and boys to join. Sometimes having a one-on-one conversation with a student who you feel will be an asset to a particular team, can go a long way.

… it is our responsibility to boost a girl’s confidence in math, make her realize the value of being smart, and recognize the power and significance of excelling in a math-based career.

Ways to treat boys and girls fairly:

  • Helping boys to realize that girls can perform at an equivalent or higher ability level. Sending this message to boys also helps girls realize that it is true.
  • Not allowing girls to dumb themselves down. It is sad when a smart girl who has strong math ability dumbs herself down to impress a boy or fit in with peers. Some girls believe that if a boy thinks he is smarter than she is, that he will like her more. Changing this mentality is an ongoing struggle, but one that needs to be addressed.
  • Teaching girls to voice their opinions in conversations. Listening to everyone’s rationale and working through conflict towards a solution is a learned skill. Teaching girls how to drive their point home without a confrontation couples with allowing everyone else time to do the same.
  • Help girls realize that they are allowed to succeed and lead. Girls who show leadership skills are often confronted with terms such as “bossy.” It’s time to change that language and that mindset.

Let’s face it, middle school is a hard time in life, and sometimes, while trying to find your way and who you are, you make mistakes. As teachers, it is our responsibility to boost a girl’s confidence in math, make her realize the value of being smart, and recognize the power and significance of exceling in a math-based career.

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