Delhi school teachers tackle the nuances of creating judgment-free environments for children.
English Language Specialist Meghan Donahue, in partnership with Delhi’s Directorate of Education, held a gender workshop for 30 mentor teachers that enabled them to teach the same content to other teachers at their respective Delhi government schools.
A child’s first interactions with gender messaging often happen in a classroom, when they start to see how gender affects perceptions, opportunities or even toys available to them. Research has shown that children start identifying gender labels, gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes before their third birthday. Therefore, teachers play a pivotal role in creating a safe and gender-equitable environment for children at a very early age.
In partnership with the Delhi Government, U.S. Embassy New Delhi’s Regional English Language Office (RELO) launched a two-week program in mid-2022, focused on enabling teachers to create gender-equitable classrooms and address school-related gender-based violence. The workshop, conducted by English Language Specialist Meghan Donahue, enabled each of the 30 mentor teachers to teach the same content to the Delhi government school teachers they mentor. Each mentor teacher will train up to 2,000 Delhi government teachers, with impact on over 2.2 million students.
“Because schools replicate and reproduce gender attitudes, and teachers often reinforce negative gender norms unintentionally,” says Donahue. Teachers are key role models for students, who pay attention to how teachers treat, react and respond to behavior, Donahue points out. They are also in a position to either reinforce gender stereotypes or help reduce gender biases.
Through her work in urban as well as rural schools over 40 years, Donahue has come to realize the powerful impact of gender in shaping “how we talk to one another, how we eat, where we eat, live, how politically active we are, how our institutions are formed.”
Another area where teachers are the first line of defense is addressing school-related gender-based violence. This occurs in and around the school environment and often results in students not learning and, in some cases, not completing school. Teachers can address stereotypes or biases that creep into their classrooms, intentionally or unintentionally.
During the training, various aspects of school-related gender-based violence were analyzed—why it happens, what teachers can do to address it and how to monitor it. “We tried to help teachers be more aware of the ways in which they see the world in terms of gender roles stereotypes,” says Donahue.
Creating safe spaces
The RELO training encouraged the teachers to examine their own gender roles, and consider the impacts on students and the school environment, Donahue says.
“I had a phenomenal time undergoing the training,” says Meenu Gupta, project lead for Delhi Directorate of Education. “The content and delivery gave us space to reflect and accept the changes through subtle but persistent questions. It taught me how to keep the atmosphere light and engaging even while dealing with the sensitive topic.”
As educators, teachers need to be able to help students grow up in a gender-equitable environment, she says, adding that the project is important as it helps teachers pause and observe themselves in the working atmosphere—“How we behave, notice the unacceptable in it and equip ourselves with the skills to start improving upon it.”
The training exposed the participants to well-structured guidance on a sensitive topic related to gender. “The learning from the training will help us to create more open, judgment-free spaces for our learners,” says Gupta.
Murari Kumar Jha, trained graduate teacher (social science) and a mentor teacher, says the workshop was his first exposure to a discourse on gender, and one that was well-needed. “After a decade in the field of education, for the first time I attended a training which discussed the pedagogical aspects of gender discourse,” he says, adding that often issues not directly related to a student’s performance in examinations are considered less important. “As educators, we need to identify the language that promotes a gender-equitable environment,” says Jha.
Though efforts to create gender-balanced classrooms have largely revolved around increased admission of girls, gender-equity is crucial to retain them. Training of teachers and educators to create safe educator-learner relationships are fundamental to ensuring equitable classrooms.
Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.