It’s three weeks into this school year, and I’m settling into this new role as an elementary school parent. I have to say, being on this side of the classroom door has been a tremendous eye-opener. This time of year typically elicits nostalgic feelings for my days in the classroom, but now that I’m in the school environment on a daily basis, I am constantly reflecting on my time as a teacher.
It’s been 6 years since I’ve put up bulletin boards, arranged desks or created a classroom schedule. I remember those days well and all the thought and consideration that went into establishing certain classroom routines. And while I fondly recall many of the classroom management strategies I implemented year after year, the rationale behind those approaches is somewhat foggy. Becoming a parent has certainly changed my lens, but the project I have been a part of at ASU has really shifted my thinking when it comes to peer relationships and creating a sense of community. For the past two and a half years, my work on the Sanford Harmony Program has me focusing on supporting children, teachers and parents in improving relationships. And while we place specific attention on combatting gender segregation and gender stereotypes, the work we are doing supports inclusive behaviors and attitudes on a much broader level.
Now with so many decisions teachers make to positively impact the physical and social environment in the classroom, it may seem a bit strange that I have locked into one specific practice – the seating arrangement. By seating arrangement, I don’t mean that I have been thinking back on the physical layout of furniture in my classroom, but rather the choices I made to mix-up boys and girls whenever possible. And just as I have noticed in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, I know that I sat my students at tables with an intentionally equal girl/boy ratio. But why did I do that? Was I attempting to create groups that were gender balanced? Probably. Was I seeking to give my students an opportunity to sit with a variety of classmates? Maybe. Was I hoping to promote positive, balanced friendships between boys and girls? I don’t know. Was I aiming to keep the socializing down to a minimum? It’s possible….
Yeah, it is possible. Because sitting “boy-girl” would ensure that they wouldn’t really be sitting with their “friends,” right? And that is why I’m fixated on the thinking that went into that decision (that and my predisposition for obsessive thoughts). Looking back it seems that some efforts I made to focus on equality and celebrate diversity may have been somewhat superficial. I can see now that my personal assumptions about boy-girl friendships played out in public ways. By making assumptions about whom kids would like to be friends with, I limited the choices for them. Yes I sat students at mixed gender tables to create a sense of balance, but I wish I had done so with the intention of creating opportunities for girls and boys to work together in positive, collaborative, and cooperative ways. Instead of wanting to keep the noise level down, I should have wanted boys and girls to learn from and about each other. And instead of perpetuating the cycle of girls and boys honing their communication and social skills in separate and segregated gender peer groups, I could have helped to guide boys and girls in developing skills in collaboration with each other and establishing friendships that would lay the foundation for healthy balanced relationships throughout their lifetimes.
I don’t know if I’ll ever end up back in the classroom, but one thing is certain, the lens from which I view peer relationships has been altered in a significant way. And as I move forward in my current role as an elementary school parent, I will keep in mind the importance of providing opportunities to cultivate new friendships and keep my own assumptions in check.