We have a problem.
It’s a big one.
And it’s one of those problems we, as teachers, need to fix.
Unfortunately, some of the teachers are part of the problem.
Her name is Miss Giggles. She’s actually a virus. She preys on girls who either lack confidence in their skills or actively hide their skills in order to maintain social status. Miss Giggles boasts a high of popularity, boys, and conformity.
The reality is much darker.
Miss Giggles undermines that which is unique about a girl who is talented. It undermines the strength of a woman. And it forms a false perception of the girl she has infected, to her future detriment.
You would like to think that as this girl matures, goes to college and enters the workforce she will develop antibodies to Miss Giggles and move on. Unfortunately, that is not so.
I had attended a physics teacher association meeting and a colleague infected with Miss Giggles got up to present. She literally giggled during the whole presentation. I know this is her personality, and I also know she is an amazing teacher and brilliant, but quite frankly in front of our group of peers, in that moment, she came off as silly and stupid. In fact, they were unable to answer the question they had sought out to answer in the first place, so by ending the talk with a jovial, “and we have no idea” and a laugh, it seemed as if she had wasted the mega-grant she had obtained. All the while, her arguably inferior male partner came off as put together and knowledgeable.
At a meeting at the start of the school year, we were asked to watch a video an give our impressions. Nearly every female gifted teacher who responded started her response with “I’m sorry if this isn’t right, but I thought…” I was infuriated. WE WERE ASKED OUR OPINION! YOU CAN’T BE WRONG. And yet my female colleagues were dumming themselves down in front of our (female) principal and peers.
Psychology tells us two things: first impressions are quick to form, long-lasting and difficult to change.
Miss Giggles creates a grave problem here: she creates a first impression that is incorrect, but very difficult to change. Meanwhile, we live in a world where women still strugle to have equal status with men and are minorities in highly technical fields such as physics. We have to prove our worth moreso than our male counterparts. Yet, there are a huge group of women who are undermining these efforts for equality!
I often have this conversation with my students: first about the science of impressions, and second that people will form those impressions based on how you carry yourself and how you speak. (Since they are formed in the first 10 seconds). Too often our girls will sell themselves short, “I don’t know anything! I’m going to fail this test” and more often than not, these are the smart ones. I quickly and semi-jokingly snap back at them and follow it up with a lesson in gender bias: first of all, everyone is going to believe you and judge you and secondly, would you ever hear a guy saying that? Does that mean he is actually smarter than you? Obviously, the answers are no and no. In specific cases I have had more serious, private conversations because when I know the student plans on majoring in engineering or physics I tell them that that is their goal this school year: to work on their presentation of themselves as confident and intelligent, because they are.
As teachers, I believe we have an incredibly important role with our students as mentors. First to model behaviors of strong, capable women, and secondly to tell them to cut the crap when they start exhibiting any symptoms of Miss Giggles.
I really think Hidden Figures was an incredibly powerful movie. Not just because of the story it told, but because of the brilliant job it did at portaying these women’s personalities and attitudes in a man’s world where they would certainly not be viewed as equal by their peers.
In her commencement address for Hampton College Katherine Johnson said, “Whatever I’m doing, I do the best that I can, not the best that’s available, but the best that I can, so I can’t give you any more, you have to get something more from someone else. But at all times, at all times, I do my best. You will do better if you cause other people to want to learn and you will do it better, too, all the time. You want to learn, want to teach, want to help.”
Her words are so wise and I think should be taken to heart by each of our students. Be your best. Be confident in your best.