August 5, 2016
Jessica Johnston is an Educational leader at Emma McLean Kindergarten in Spotswood, Victoria. Jessica is a passionate advocate for gender equality, pro-actively creating equal learning opportunities for the children in her care. She says addressing gender equality is at the forefront of all interactions with the children, as well as specifically targeting gender bias in the centre’s social skills program which tackles topics such as fairness, diversity and conflict resolution. Thea Hughes spoke with Jessica recently about her perspectives on gender equality in the early childhood education setting and the practices employed by the centre to promote gender equality.
TH Can you share with us a little bit about yourself and the centre?
JJ I’ve been teaching for 35 years now and find myself more than ever honoured by the joy and responsibility of working with young children. Our ability to be influential in the lives of children is never greater than in these first five years and l have been increasingly challenged by the responsibility of this. When l first started teaching l was happy if all of the children had a happy day and everyone was safe. I am so much more ambitious now and so determined that the love and trust they place in me is rewarded by the very best efforts l can bring to my work. After working with hundreds of young children and their families’ l am more than ever aware of the potential early childhood educators have to influence how children feel about themselves and the world around them. What job could be more exciting than that!
TH Does the centre have a particular approach to promoting gender equality when teaching the kids in your care?
I believe that Kindergartens, childcare centres and schools are like ships being led by captains. The philosophy and passion of the captain will inspire and led the direction of the ship/team. We are lucky to have a team of passionate educators for whom their practice is an ongoing evolving work of reflection and sharing. In my role as educational leader l am responsible for creating an environment where educators – in all their glorious diversity – feel valued while at the same time creating an environment with clear aspirations and standards, so that the ‘many’ still present as one in all that we hope to do for children and their families. Over the last few years l’ve become much more aware of the widespread and insidious ways children are shackled by society’s perception of what is appropriate for their gender and have become much more proactive at working with my colleagues to address this. Addressing gender equality is something we do every day in all of our interactions with the children as well as specifically targeting gender bias in our social skills program that incorporates topics such as fairness, diversity and conflict resolution.
“Over the last few years l’ve become much more aware of the widespread and insidious ways children are shackled by society’s perception of what is appropriate for their gender and have become much more proactive at working with my colleagues to address this. Addressing gender equality is something we do every day in all of our interactions with the children as well as specifically targeting gender bias in our social skills program that incorporates topics such as fairness, diversity and conflict resolution.”
TH Do you see promoting gender equality in early childhood education as being important?
JJ I see it as an essential component of our work, which aims to create children with a strong sense of well-being and a lifelong interest in learning. The relationships we have with the children in our care are hugely influential and l want to use this power for good! Children of this age are already pummelled by the societal and media pressures around them that suggest certain behaviours befit their gender. I am more determined than ever to challenge this artificial restriction of children and proactively model being the best human being you can be. I want to be clear that l don’t want to ‘de-gender’ children or make the girls more like boys and vice versa. I want them to celebrate who they are – all parts of who they are and not be defined by just their gender.
“I’d like parents to be more aware of challenging genders stereotypes. I believe strongly that gender stereotyping is insidious and unintentional in parenting and that parents in all their love have no idea how some of the language they use shackles their children into thinking less for themselves and tunnels them into gender specific roles that wastes their potential. Girls being called ‘princess’ and ‘baby girl’, boys being told to ‘toughen up and stop playing like a girl’ – all contribute to compounding the strong societal message that boys and girls have separate and defined codes of behaviour to follow.”
TH Can you share some of the ways you encourage kids to explore their full potential by breaking down gender stereotypes?
JJ The greatest change to our practice has simply been to raise the awareness of all staff around this issue, to help them see how influential their interactions with the children are on the picture of themselves the children are building. Old practices like organizing children by gender, commenting on pretty clothes and hair, providing organised ball games to settle down the boys have all been challenged. We have been proactive in ensuring all our resources push the appropriate messages that all children have a right to participate in all activities and that activities don’t come with a gender requirement. Often this has meant creating resources ourselves to challenge the gender stereotypes so prevalent in our society. I’ve made posters, blankets for dolls, superhero capes for super kids – anything l can do to smash through barriers for young children’s aspirations for themselves l do it! I make up stories about children doing all sorts of wonderful non-gender specific things and often promote discussions about fairness through anecdotes of situations where children were not allowed to do things because of their gender.
Children are by their nature very fair and l am amused and heartened by their indignation at these glaring examples of inequity. While my philosophy around gender equality is serious and passionate, my delivery of it in practice is gentle and encouraging. Every teacher of four year children is surrounded by pink princesses and superhero boys and that’s ok – we just need to work hard open their eyes to all the ways of being yourself!
TH Have you had positive responses from children and parents?
JJ Yes! It is music to my ears to hear the children say things like “colours are for all children”; “it’s not fair to say girls can’t play, all kids can play”… I want the children I teach to develop a confidence and belief in themselves unshackled by gender barriers. I suspect some parents think I’m a mad old feminist, but most families are genuinely surprised and interested in learning about gender bias and are keen to consider the ways they can address bias and empower their child.
TH Do you see gender stereotypes hindering children & development opportunities?
JJ Yes, I do. When l meet my class at the beginning of the year they are 4 or 5 years old. Many of them are already convinced that boys and girls have very different roles, rights and responsibilities and they see nothing wrong with this. They have already been bombarded by messages from toyshops, movies, family, and peers as to what is appropriate behaviour for a boy and a girl. Many of them come in clothes that hinder their opportunities- pretty dresses that mean they can’t safely climb, shoes that don’t allow them to run and kick balls. Play is the work of young children and they need to be dressed appropriately. The work of educators is to broaden the horizons of young children and ignite their interest in the world around them and the relationships that make life so enriching.
TH What would you most like parents to know about gender stereotypes and early childhood development
JJ I’d like parents to be more aware of challenging genders stereotypes. I believe strongly that gender stereotyping is insidious and unintentional in parenting and that parents in all their love have no idea how some of the language they use shackles their children into thinking less for themselves and tunnels them into gender specific roles that wastes their potential. Girls being called ‘princess’ and ‘baby girl’, boys being told to ‘toughen up and stop playing like a girl’ – all contribute to compounding the strong societal message that boys and girls have separate and defined codes of behaviour to follow. I believe we all want the best for our children and that we can continue to aim for that by loving and encouraging our children to be the best they can be. And by being mindful about counteracting societal stereotyping. I dream about a time when gender, race and religion are superfluous details to our children’s potential. And I believe educators are on the front line of making this a reality. Super kids! I see them everywhere!
Jessica has been employed at Emma McLean Kindergarten and Day Care as the 4 year old kindergarten teacher since January 2009. Jessica holds a Bachelor of Education in both early childhood and primary education. Jessica has over 35 years experience as an educator and is a passionate advocate of quality educational programs.
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