The echo of her heels clicking at the tiled floor lingered in the air like an eerie siren. She moved swiftly yet with unnatural stability balancing her on the slightly worn-out stilettos from countless hours walking around in what sometimes felt like circles. There was something different about her energy as she walked this time; it was not that of a friendly educator who deemed the best for her students. Blinded by the innocence of the young age, the eleven-year-old girl and twelve-year-old boy sat in confusion as she began to speak. The silence between her raised voice only gave air to some heavy sighs from both children. As the storm cleared out, all that was left were ruins to be mourned. With both children in tears, that was the foundation for what would be years of trauma and undeserved baggage.
I was about eleven, a few days after the terms final exam, when it happened. I was sitting in the computer lab when my English teacher, who also happened to be classmate’s mother, walked into the room. She sashayed across the room to her son, who was sitting next to me. Boom! Suddenly she served him some heavy slaps accompanied by harsh words. As those ‘painful to hear’ words slithered effortlessly through her lips, my classmate’s eyes and turned dark and his face was wet with tears which only seemed to provoke his mother. As she stormed out the room, she paused for a breath, looked at me and with a calm face and with a hard forming smile said, “Congratulations.” – That is the story of how I found out I had ranked first in the whole stream for the first time.
The tears that ran down my face that day were the manifestation of confusion and guilt I did not deserve. I had never been first at anything before that moment. Not in sports, academically, or even socially. This moment was supposed to be one of pure bliss, but instead, I was crying, feeling guilty for doing better than a boy in my class. I knew I deserved to be in the first position because of my hard work.
Nonetheless, I felt partially guilty for the beat-down I had just witnessed. As I thought about it, I was further confused. How had my teacher, who was the spear header of the ‘girls can do better’ campaign shifted to ‘How dare you allow a girl to beat you’ so fast. I wanted to scream ‘why didn’t you read harder’ to the boy silently sobbing next to me but innately I knew it was not his fault.
We sat awkwardly in the sombre moment next to each other, crying silently. At the same time, a few onlooking eyes pretended not to have seen what had happened. Finally, we both stood up apologised to each other and walked out our separate ways. I may never get to know if I could have become first again in this class since I soon after changed schools (for different reasons). That experience made me understand the foundation of the gendered rivalry that exists within the classroom and just how severe it could get. It was also then than I first encountered the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon, which rarely comes up during women and girls empowerment campaigns.
Boys don’t cry. You’re running like a girl. Girls can do better. Boys are good at maths.
One of the earliest separations formed between students is on their gender, and the boys vs girls narrative begin. This narrative carries with it different expectations of students’ characters and abilities. Unfortunately, these tend to be gendered. Through education, we have subconsciously built upon the ‘battle of the sexes’ developing it to a real gendered rivalry that is bred in school and extends beyond the classroom to gender discrimination in life outside school, what starts as ‘a little healthy competition’ for children feeds of the undertones of gender norms and inequality and has resulted in a situation where educational spaces have become breeding beds for gender inequality.
Fortunately, education offers space for pragmatic experimentation. One of such solutions is the implementation of a growth mindset in learning spaces. The concept of a growth mindset was synthesised by Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck. I define it as a mindset that promotes growth through intrinsic motivation despite external factors such as sex, social-economic background or past failures.
The right implementation of growth mindset enables children to learn and be fully aware of the gender biases within their day to day life. At the same time, it empowers and inspires the learners to see themselves beyond their gendered narrative. A growth mindset allows learners to build their critical thinking and examine their potential and abilities based on factual metrics. It is an opportunity for students to test out social norms and prove or disprove them based on their experimenting. Given, this type of learning requires patience from both the learner and the educators. As such, it is important to train teachers on creating gender-responsive learning environments and developing policies which protect students being victims of gendered social biases. An environment that promotes growth mindsets potentially allows education spaces to be more holistic and be part of a solution for a problem that has challenged the world for centuries.