Gender, gender identity and physical education

Teachers often lead dual lives; one that exists entirely outside of the realm of the school day and greater school community and that which exists inside said community.  There are generally common elements in both, but behaviours may vary considerably depending on the extracurricular interests of teachers.

My “other” life, that is, the one in which I am an active member of a socially-conscious group of people that travels around North America supporting our local professional soccer team, occasionally intersects with that of my “work” life.  And in those odd occasions where they do cross paths, I find myself constantly intrigued by the intersection.

Our group, the Southsiders, has had a mandate that stands vehemently against the violence, racism, sexism and bigotry that often is associated with organized soccer support around the world.  From our inclusion in the Independent Supporters Council, which shares many of the same values, we have actively stood in support of specific campaigns focusing on removing racism (Give Racism the Red Card), and homophobia (in conjunction with local Pride events) from the game.  Our members have also made it a point to have the sexist, offensive and unnecessary, “she fell over” chant removed from our collective sections, and have taken action during national team games to combat discrimination in the form of the “puto” chant that is screamed by supporters of other national teams after the opposing goalkeeper takes a goal kick.  While these sorts of campaigns were met with resistance from people, it is not surprising – these sorts of behaviours and chants have been ingrained in not only soccer supporters culture, but in greater society as well for years.

Prior to my involvement with the Southsiders, these types of social “issues,” for lack of a better word, were not on my radar.  It’s not that I ignored it, it is just that it never really was something I thought about or was directly confronted with in either my “school” life or “other” life until I started being a(n) (overly) active supporter.  The things that female supporters have to put up with from (some) male supporters sometimes is ridiculous.  We’re told that we know nothing about the game (despite many playing at a higher level than most men, or being incredibly knowledgeable about the game and its nuances).  We’re told that we’re there only to watch the men (for some of it, it’s an added benefit, but not the sole reason for our presence in the stands).  We’re told that singing, jumping, and flag waving is unsexy, unfeminine and generally, unwanted (Take a look at this article, with some salty language for evidence of this).

And despite these ridiculous statements and sentiments that have been aired towards me, thankfully mostly in the abstract, I like to think that I am a better person because of my involvement in our supporters group.  And that is because it has truly opened my eyes to issues that not only those people that I stand beside every (other) weekend, but my current, past and future students may or may not experience in their respective lifetimes.

The video that sparked my desire to write specifically about gender and its place in physical education, was brought to my attention by Paul Rosengard, via Twitter:

It is a fascinating and uplifting story from 60 Minutes that focuses on Schuyler Bailar’s athletic journey prior to and on the Harvard swim team, and well worth the watch. And it unearths so many questions, some of which may be uncomfortable for (physical) educators to grapple with when it comes to examining their own practice(s).

I feel as if I should put in a disclaimer at this point, to emphasize that I am not an expert in issues pertaining to gender identity or social justice.  I have tried to educate myself through articles and videos that appear on some of my social media feeds,  and feel that I have a very rudimentary grasp on the matter.  So please, if you are reading this as someone who is highly versed in the subject, be kind.  The rest of this post comes from a place of wondering and hope that we can change, even if it is in a small way, how our part of the teaching profession approaches gender identity and its accompanying issues.

While it is difficult to find concrete numbers to support this statement, anecdotal observations seem to support the notion that men outnumber women when it comes to holding a position as a physical education teacher in our schools, which is unsurprising given society’s general view on women in sports.  I am fortunate to have attended middle and high schools that had male and female teachers in its physical education department, as it helped, at least in hindsight, demonstrate that both males and females can be, and are successful in different areas of sport.  I am also fortunate to currently work at a school that recognizes the importance of gender balance in our physical education department and its potential impact on students’ perceptions of physical ability with respect to gender.  Sadly, this isn’t the case for many students around the world, and as such, the traditional societal view that maintains that sports are a male domain continues to be perpetuated.

And as such, students come into school already familiar with the “girls are inherently poor at sports” and the accompanying “boys are better at sports” narrative.  No one denies that there are certain changes that occur at the onset of puberty that can enable males to be more proficient at certain sport-specific skills.  But just because there are biological changes that occur in the body to males does not mean that all males are inherently more proficient at sports than females.  And yet, this is the narrative, one that is entirely a cultural construct based on gender-based assumptions, that continues to exist.

While there are a number of teachers that do their part to negate this narrative, I am left wondering to what extent we as a whole consider how and what we do in our daily practice, as it pertains to not only cisgender issues, as has been the focus thus far, but transgender issues as well.  Are we all guilty, to some extent, of perpetuating these narratives and issues, despite our best efforts and considerations?

I am certainly guilty of this.  Despite being cognizant of how my actions may perpetuate this male vs. female narrative or alienate any transgender students I may teach.  And while I am trying to reduce, if not eliminate, the use of instructional and organizational strategies that rely on gender as a means of separating or differentiating, it is a difficult, and ongoing endeavour.

Take for instance how we refer to our students.  How often do we use the age-old, “boys and girls” greeting, or the use of “guys” when trying to gain the attention of small groups of students.   The use of genders to create groups or teams is another example of how we reinforce gender identities.  Our classes are often created with nearly equal numbers of female and male students, and as such, it is easy to pair or group students according to gender.  But what are our students who are gender non-conforming? Who are questioning their gender identity?

Our change rooms are another area of concern.  We separate students into gender binaries, without really considering students who may be questioning their gender identities, but have yet to actually (publicly) bring up that they are questioning said identity. I am curious if students who cite self-esteem or body image as one of the reasons for finding the change rooms a difficult or uncomfortable place to be with the rest of their classmates is in reality related to gender identity.  What measures are we taking to ensure that these students feel that they have a safe place to change, where they are not being ridiculed or ostracized?

How we create and divide our athletic teams is also something to consider.  Many schools and school sporting associations allow for females to play on male teams, but rarely do we allow for it to happen the other way around, at least without a large outcry should it occur.  Co-ed teams are likely helpful, but often have requirements that dictate the number of female or male athletes the team must field at a given time.

What about our curriculum?  Are the units of instruction tilted towards one gender over the other?  Are we ensuring that our health education units are taking both cis and transgendered perspectives into account? Are we even educating students about (trans)gender identities and issues?

Hopefully, this piece has provided some food for thought with respect to your own teaching roles and how you address gender identity and its related issues.  I am certain that I am missing a number of other items that could and perhaps should be considered in this post, but I am bereft of further ideas at this juncture and feel woefully uneducated.  I would love to hear more from those of you that are more versed in the subject, so that it can be shared out to a greater audience.




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