It is with much fear and trembling that I wade into ‘troubled waters’ of gender by commenting on why I (often) prefer women teachers. By now I most certainly have lost about half of you to what appears to be an insane generalisation while the other half of you read nervously wondering how I can possibly navigate my way unscathed through this minefield I have created.
My inspiration for this blog comes from my reflections on the Laing lectures at Regent College given by Susan Wise Bauer (check out the link to her website on my blog roll). While in a future post I hope to address the brilliant and inspiring lectures she gave on how words are used in the digital age, for now I wish to reflect more generally on a trend I have noticed in my own life.
I am not saying that women are inherently better teachers than men, that all my female teachers have been great, and I am certainly not saying that none of the male teachers I have had were equally as capable as the women of whom I speak. It is rather a statement of my personal perspective: when I look back on my 6 years as a student most of the best teachers I have had are women.
As I thought more about what it is about these gifted pedagogues that have distinguished them as excellent I realized that a lot of it has to do with the fact that they have communicated, often implicitly, that they understand what is most important in life and structure their lives accordingly. Three primary priorities stick out to me that characterise their teaching–in descending order they are: life is primarily about God’s love for us and our love for him, life is about family, friends, and other important relationships, and that knowledge is not power but rather knowledge is empowerment.
Lest I be misunderstood please hear me out in what I am not saying in this statement. I am not saying that the disposition towards a more relational outlook of life means that women have not made sacrifices to their personal lives for the advancement of their academic career. As someone who has been a student for 6 years I know the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into academic work and I am equally aware that serious academic work means cancelling some dates—maybe even holidays, spending weekends in the library, and evenings alone with books for companions. I am also not saying that these women do not enjoy the study. Anyone who has spent time in the academic world knows that you have to really love what you are studying if you wish to survive. Finally I am not saying that the relational outlook on life means that the quality of their academic work is inferior to men.
What I am saying is that women often communicate why academics are so important. For them academics are not something separated from life but are rather integrated seamlessly into their lives. For example Susan Wise Bauer last night remarked that her interest in examining how the internet changes how we use words came from the realisation that her teenage sons were using the internet and she wanted to think of a way to help them use the internet well. In my opinion this is how the best ideas are formed—not in a detached Cartesian way that prizes the abstract and universal but rather with an impetus of particular faces of people you are in relationship with. In my experience women do this well. Another thing that I am saying is that I have had an easier time seeing women instructors as “real people”. It is easy to view teachers as mere instructors—as if when class is not in session they spend the rest of their time in their office reading (come on, which of you didn’t think that your teachers lived at the school when you were young?). The women who have taught me, however, have always made it obvious that their self-understanding is not primarily as “teacher” but rather teachers/wives/mothers/friends/etc. These roles define them, in my point of view, in all situations. Although, like most of us, they wisely separate their professional and personal lives, I have always got the feeling that there is no hesitation in allowing their personal roles to bleed over into their teaching role when it is appropriate. In this way women have modelled that learning is about more than a collection of facts. It is life-changing stuff that affects the everyday people that you engage with: your spouse, children, parents, and friends. For this lesson and the many others the wise women in my life have taught me I say thank you!