5 Ways to Empower Girls in the Classroom

Teachers can help create gender equity in education by empowering girls in the classroom. Use these five tips to teach those lessons.

As women, we’ve made great strides toward equality in the past century.

Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for rights we now take for granted, and our mothers’ generation pushed hard at the social boundaries that kept women out of positions of power. In my generation of mothers, there is a lot of talk about how to empower our girls, how to raise them to continue to push higher, break through the glass ceilings, and take their places among men in positions of true equality.

While we’ve made great progress, there is still work to be done. Economic disparity remains, as do social and power-position imbalances between genders. Our daughters are entering a world stronger and freer than any generation of young women has ever been, but there is not yet equality.

So, what do we do about this divide? As parents and teachers of girls, how do we work to raise women who will be warriors for their own causes and for humanity as a whole? Here are five ideas for educators of young girls that could make a big difference.

1. Set a good example.

Maybe you’ve heard the old adage: “More is caught than taught.” For teachers who identify as women, it is vitally important that we set an example for our girls of what strong womanhood looks like. If we do our work to speak from a place of equal footing and push towards our dreams, our girls will see that this is possible for them, too. We will become their stepping stones. Finding empowerment begins in these all-important mentoring relationships.

Teachers, regardless of their gender, also have the opportunity to invite guests or study people who will inspire students to think beyond gender roles and limitations. Why not make use of TED talks delivered by inspiring women, read about people who defy gender sterotypes, invite women who are leaders in their community or profession to the classroom, and encourage students to find heroes in the world around them? Better yet, encourage children to reach out to women whom they admire, ask them questions, or form mentoring relationships with them.

2. Give them a voice.

We have to get past the point where the boys who speak up are considered “leaders” or “strong” and the girls who do the same are considered “bossy” or “rude.” Giving girls an equal voice — in the classroom, at home, and in community — is vital to changing the ways girls and boys see themselves. Teaching young people, of all genders, what it means to engage in respectful dialogue, truly listen for the purpose of understanding, and communicate across the various divides that exist in society is essential for our continued evolution.

If you’re working with a group of young people, spend some time observing (and recording!) the interactions in your classroom. How often are girls speaking out? On what topics? What is the response to their questions or ideas from classmates? From other teachers? Are you detecting microaggressions? Take some notes on what’s really happening in the community you have control over and begin making changes that empower whichever segment of the population you find marginalized. And remember that the voices you notice are underrepresented may not be strictly along gender lines!

3. Create allies.

Feminism is the belief that people should have equal opportunities, regardless of gender. While the feminist movement has focused on women, it is not limited to women — nor should it be. Every person can be a feminist and, in my opinion, should be. We need to be actively working, as parents and teachers, to create dialogue around feminism that is inclusive of male allies. Men have a great deal of power in this world, and they can use it to press for equality. They should be inspired to do that!

Dialogue that brings the genders together, does not marginalize the issues that relate to women, and is solutions-focused for everyone will go a long way towards teaching boys to become allies. We should help our sons become sensitive to the issues, responsive to the points of injustice and inequality, and aggressive in the pursuit of change. They should be encouraged to identify as feminists, allies in a cause that not only benefits their mothers and sisters, but themselves as well. When women advance, the human race advances. Everyone wins.

4. Focus on power and privilege.

I was shocked, recently, to sit in a room full of hundreds of adults and realize just how many of them were having their first discussion about power and privilege. Why are we not discussing this in every elementary classroom?

Privilege refers to the benefits that we are born into. We don’t ask for them. They are related to our race, our gender, our socioeconomic status, the education level of our parents, or any other facet of our identity. These characteristics sometimes gain us access to other privileges, such as educational opportunities, powerful networks, social advancement, and career development. All of these different characteristics coalesce to form the ways in which we move through society.

If you are interested in exploring the privilege you have and opening those discussions up to your students, Check My Privilege and the Edward Ginsberg Center’s Privilege Walk Activity are great places to start.

Identifying the privilege we enjoy is the first step, but then what? How do we discuss with students what to do with the wide disparity that exists based on factors outside of our control? No one asked to be born into the circumstances she was.

Taking these conversations one step forward to examine how a person can use the privilege she was born into to bring equality and demand social justice is important. Taking kids beyond the “Now what?” as they recognize privilege to create dialogue across divisions is crucial to raising a generation of young people who have the skills and power to level the playing fields further.

5. Challenge them.

As educators, we have the power to make assignments and develop learning opportunities with objectives that we design. Why not create projects around gender equity and women’s empowerment? Or encourage our students to reach out to women who are warriors in our communities and in the world at large as part of the necessary research? Why not challenge our girls to become powerful advocates for change by tackling big issues and pushing forward for their own generation?

A great example of an organization doing this is The Advice Project. This international endeavor focuses on women’s issues with the goal of empowering young girls. The organization holds classes in New York City and Bamenda, Cameroon, and it hosts an annual Global Summit. My mother, daughter, and I participated last July in the Amazon rainforest in Peru, and next year’s summit will be held in Ireland. The group has great resources that you can use in your classroom.

The overarching point is that it’s up to us, as teachers and parents, to create classrooms and learning environments in which opportunities for dialogue and diversity are moving us towards true equality. Avoiding uncomfortable discussions doesn’t help. Pretending the issues aren’t there doesn’t improve anything. Only bravery in the face of our own discomfort and an acknowledgement of the realities of power and privilege will get the work done in the next generation.

Let’s use our positions of power to be the example, to continue the work, and to challenge our girls to become warriors, not wallflowers.

Find more resources to empower girls, and share your thought in a comment or question below..

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