The War on Sassiness

When I studied education in graduate school, most of the people in my program were upper-middle class, white, Christian, and native speakers of English.  About half of the course work was about understanding those who came from different backgrounds. Two of the required courses were about teaching bilingual students, one was about teaching lower-income students, one was about teaching students with disabilities, and “promoting Social Justice in the classroom” was one of the standards they evaluated us on.

Yet the majority of these upper-middle class, white, Christian, English-speaking teachers were women, and consequently, the topic of gender was not part of the coursework, and we never discussed gender dynamics with the same gravity that we discussed race, social class, differentiated learning styles, or bilingualism. Teaching is a predominantly female profession, but men aren’t a systemically oppressed group of people, so teaching female teachers how to interact with boys didn’t feel like a priority in the way that teaching white people how to interact with students of color did.

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One of the first things we learned was not to approach teaching with the generic attitude of “I treat everyone equally and don’t see race,” because that’s an attitude that only a white person would have. Race is easy to ignore if you’re a white teacher from a privileged background, but it’s harder to ignore if you’re an underprivileged student of color. The same is true of gender, except it’s true in both directions.

Most schoolteachers are women, who know what it’s like to be high-school girl but have no idea what it’s like to be a boy, and the way they interact with boys vs. girls will often reflect this. They will reward students who are more reserved or collaborative, qualities associated with “femininity,” and punish those who are more outgoing or competitive, qualities associated with “masculinity.” They aren’t punishing boys for being boys or rewarding girls for being girls; they are reacting positively to behavior they understand and reacting negatively to behavior they find threatening.

Ultimately, this hurts both boys and girls. It teaches boys that they are threatening just for acting like boys, and it teaches girls that success means always being obedient. Boys who talk back will be labeled bullies and overdisciplined by scared administrators, while girls who talk back will often not be disciplined at all, but will instead be labeled “sassy” and ostracized by their peers.

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The word “sassy” was not originally a sexist term; it was an alternate spelling of “saucy,” a word used in Shakespeare to describe belligerent men or women. In today’s high school culture, though, it is used to shame outspoken girls.

Since I began teaching high school, I’ve found that high school girls are more likely to be labeled “loud” in a derogatory way, even though boys are usually louder. I’ve found that when a boy complains, the other boys will often follow suit, while if a girl complains, the other students of both genders will roll their eyes and tell her to be quiet. I’ve found that when a boy openly mocks the teacher, the rest of the class laughs, while if a girl openly mocks a teacher, the rest of the class will then begin mocking her for her “sass.” When experiencing this as a male teacher, it’s hard to empathize with so-called “sassy” behavior. A teenage girl’s disparaging words can still be hurtful to the person being targeted, whether that person is a fellow student or the teacher himself, and the fact that other students tell the “sassy” girl to stop doesn’t make her words hurt any less.

It’s easy for a male teacher or a male student to think girls “get away with” disrespectful behavior, because from a disciplinary standpoint, boys usually suffer worse consequences than girls for breaking the exact same rule. From a social standpoint, however, a boy’s peers are more likely to reward rule-breaking than a girl’s peers are, and so teachers feel obligated to discipline boys more harshly than girls in order to show them that the risk of rule-breaking outweighs the reward of their peers’ approval.

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This disparity feels unfair, but it isn’t sexism; it’s a response to sexism. In some ways, it’s a byproduct of not having enough male authority figures in schools, but that absence of male authority figures is itself a product of sexism. It’s sexist that boys run the high school’s social culture, it’s sexist that men are made to feel like losers if they choose teaching as a career, it’s sexist that teenage boys fear girls who speak out, and it’s sexist that teachers fear teenage boys who act like boys.

When you label a student “dangerous,” you’re coming at the student from a position of fear. When you label a student “disrespectful,” you’re coming at that student from a position of power-hunger. When you label a student “sassy,” you’re coming at a student from a position of humiliation. You’re trivializing their feelings and using shame to control the way they express themselves.

This doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t speak up when we feel afraid, disrespected, or annoyed; it just means we should address this behavior in a way that encourages the students to grow rather than simply trying to stop the behavior for our own convenience. We teachers are just as guilty of taking our boys too seriously as we are of not taking our girls seriously enough. As result, our boys become men who worry their anger will be perceived as menacing, while our girls become women who worry their anger will be perceived as cute and funny. The gender dynamics of our school culture help shape how boys treat girls, how girls treat boys, and how boys and girls see themselves. As teachers, we owe it to our kids to understand this, and the graduate programs that train teachers ought to help us understand rather than forcing us to figure it out on our own.

Content written by Giorgio Selvaggio, originally publised for GoodMenProject.com

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