As my classmates in my current seminary courses would no doubt be shocked to learn, I was once the quiet student in the class. In fact, I was the stereotypical quiet young woman: I sat in the front row, rarely skipped, took detailed notes, and received consistently good grades. But I almost never volunteered my opinion, preferring to contribute only when asked or when I was certain of my answer.
My quietness was, no doubt, partially due to my introverted personality and my unfamiliarity with the classroom context, since I had been homeschooled for nearly my entire education prior to college. But some of my reluctance to speak was also, I now realize, due to internalized social pressures.
As other articles in this issue point out, women in educational settings are often subject to expectations and pressures—occasionally explicit, often hidden—that stifle our voices in the classroom. I had accepted the idea that girls should not be outspoken, and I believed that I should not contribute unless I felt confident that I had the right answer. Both of these are common beliefs among young women in classroom settings.
So, what changed?
In my second year of graduate school, I enrolled in a history seminar with a prominent historian. I knew it would be a challenging course, especially because it was outside my own department. I was intimidated before I even walked into the room on the first day, and for the first few sessions I was even quieter than normal!
But then, one day when I was trying to melt into my chair because I had not yet finished the assigned readings, my professor turned to me and asked for my opinion on our topic. I turned bright red and stammered something about not having finished the reading, sure that I would be met with a disappointed look.
Much to my surprise, though, the professor did not let me off the hook. She asked if I had read the introduction and conclusion of the book under discussion, which I had, and then she coached me through how to contribute to the discussion with the imperfect knowledge I did have. At this moment in the classroom, I finally realized that it was okay for me to be wrong in the exchange of ideas that yields knowledge.
Coincidently, I was taking this seminar at the same time that I was teaching my first college class. My professor supported and encouraged my voice in the classroom, which inspired me to work toward doing the same in my own classrooms, especially for young female students. This has been my primary goal in every teaching environment I have since entered.
I am passionate about creating classroom spaces in which students, and especially women students, can thrive because having such a space made a huge difference in my life and career. I also became invested in creating an empowering space for female students upon noticing that many of my teachers and then colleagues—even well-meaning or brilliant professors—had never considered the unconscious and internalized biases that women experience in the classroom.
I have heard colleagues, primarily men, lament how infrequently women in their classes speak and I suspect this is the complaint of many college professors. But typically, they have never considered how they might create a classroom that counterbalances the pressures and biases that keep women silent. There is, obviously, no magic formula; all teachers know that we cannot engage every student in every class. But over my years of teaching, I have developed several strategies for creating spaces where women feel free and empowered to actively participate. Here are five of them:
Acknowledge Implicit Bias
The first step that a teacher must take is to do an honest assessment of their own implicit biases. And not just men; women can also perpetuate sexism, however unintentionally. Sometimes this bias comes out in calling on men more than women in class, or in allowing men to talk over women or dominate conversations. Still other times, it is a subtle tendency to reinforce the expectation that young women should behave well while young men are allowed to take risks.
Assessing implicit bias allows teachers to determine how they may be negatively impacting the women in their classrooms and making it less likely that women will be active and engaged participants.
But no one teacher can singlehandedly undo years of social conditioning, which means that it is not enough to simply stop perpetuating sexism. In addition to countering our own biases, as teachers we must actively create classroom environments that support women.
Model Process: It’s Okay to Be Wrong
Many women struggle with confidence, as my own classroom anxiety shows. We want to be certain that we are right before we volunteer an answer or our opinion, whereas men are more likely to offer ideas and roll with the criticism they receive. But as study after study suggests, failure, risk-taking, and resilience are vital character traits. That means that, as teachers, we need to support the whole learning process in students—which often involves being wrong.
One way to support this sort of risk-taking in the classroom is to simply treat all student contributions with respect, regardless of how off-the-mark they may be. I know this sounds idealistic and I also know that it can be difficult to do this well. But when students know that they will not be ridiculed or belittled for making mistakes, they become more willing to offer their ideas without waiting to be absolutely certain they are right.
Another way to show students that ignorance and error are part of the learning process is to admit to our own ignorance or our own mistakes. Letting students see that learning is a constant process, not a static arrival, can also give them a boost in confidence and a willingness to participate in the classroom.
Provide Multiple Options for Participation
My teaching experience comes from the humanities, where class discussions are the standard gauge for participation. But some students, whether due to personality or social conditioning, are intimidated by this type of classroom participation. And, thanks to the confidence gap between men and women, women students are typically more likely to withdraw from large class discussions.
Providing multiple forms of participation will support students who may find it intimidating to share their thoughts with the class. Short writing prompts provide students with time to think through responses; small group discussions often encourage quieter students to participate in conversations. These methods benefit male students as well by supporting anyone who wants to engage but is uncomfortable talking in a larger group.
Manage Class Discussions
Along with providing multiple forms of participation, teachers who use classroom discussions must commit to carefully managing those discussions. We have all been in a group where an instructor allows one or two students, often men, to dominate; those situations are rarely conducive to engaged learning for anyone. Be sure to draw out quieter students, especially women. If one or two very confident students consistently control the class’s discussion, students with less confidence will be less and less willing to engage.
Explicitly Encourage Participation
Finally, as my own experience as a student shows, teachers boost confidence when they encourage women to speak up, share ideas, and voice opinions. This can take a variety of forms: calling on women as often as men, coaching women through their presentations, or writing notes on essays or exams asking women to share their ideas more often.
In my case, the extra coaching didn’t change my introversion; I still take my time before I venture an opinion in a larger group. But it did help me understand that my thoughts, even when imperfect, added value to classroom conversations. And I have carried that confidence with me into many other areas of life, to my benefit.
We must recognize the stereotypes and social conditioning that can hinder women in the classroom, and then create educational spaces that actively support women as they learn. Many of these suggestions will benefit men as well as women—but teachers should specifically consider the extra support their women students may need.
This is perhaps even more crucial in Christian schools, universities, and seminaries (and especially complementarian institutions), where women may feel even more pressure to be quiet and allow men to take the lead. Christian educators should likewise employ these five strategies to empower female students to use their God-given gifts and contribute equally to their male peers in the classroom.
Together, we can construct safe, supportive classrooms where women can be who they are as well as make mistakes. Those of us who have the privilege and responsibility of teaching must commit to encouraging and empowering women in our classrooms to take risks, reject perfectionism, and gain confidence.
This article appeared in “Let Them Learn: Fighting Sexism in School,” the Fall 2019 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.