Different Voices

I remember when our Admissions Director Mr. S. first started at our school, he sent the faculty an email asking how working in an all-girls school had shaped and was reflected in our teaching. At first, I was not sure how best to respond. I had started working at SBS just three years after the publication of Carol Gilligan’s ground-breaking In a Different Voice. Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher was published in my second decade at the school, and Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons as well as How Girls Thrive by JoAnn Deak in the third. I knew so much more about teaching girls then when I had signed that first contract.

But I also knew that 5-20% of girls have brains that are “wired male.” By this, I mean brains that exhibit patterns of thinking and experiencing the world, neurologically and psychologically, more frequently shown by males. With that information in hand, teaching in an all-girls school suddenly became way more complicated. Maybe the girl in front of me operated from an ethic of care, living in a relational world where society’s pressure to “be nice” might lead her to repress her true voice and hide her true self. (Gilligan, Pipher). Maybe those pressures would lead to relational bullying (Simmons). Maybe connectedness, competence and confidence were the core elements of building her self-esteem (Deak). But on the other hand, maybe not. Odds were that at least one of my students would have a “male brain” in any given year.

And that just looks at biological heritage. Gender identity and expression go far beyond that. I remember once asking a Humanities 7 class to write on what it means to be a girl. Out of just nine girls, responses ranged from liking pink and wearing make-up to standing strong amid a swirl of pressures to conform to a certain standard to genuine confusion at the question “since we’re all different.” And each girl was equally sure of herself. They listened carefully and respectfully to each other, and summarized the ensuing discussion by deciding that all of them were right since they’d written their personal truths, but none of them had the definitive answer since their personal truths were so different.

In the end, I wrote that working in an all-girls school had shaped my teaching by leading me to know what to expect as a first guess when working with girls, but also by leading me to understand more fully the importance of getting to know each individual student and finding out what genuinely works for her.  I wrote that it had given me a heightened sense of the complexity of people and the interplay between nature and nurture. And I wrote that the ultimate joy in the job was when a student could honestly say she had found her voice and was living as her true self.

That still holds true today.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean


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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

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