‘Man -I’-festations and confessions:

the socially constructed oxymoron of being a woman mathematics teacher in a historic all-boys independent school.

by Dalene Swanson

Sometimes past events in our own lives are re-evoked by other’s narratives and they form interwoven threads that inform our identities in social relation with others. These threads seem to weave a tapestry of a much larger narrative, although we are unable to see the whole from the perspective of the past. Often, these past happenings fragment our identities and we choose to have it so by breaking the threads and tossing them aside as if to dismiss their relevance to our greater purpose. But the threads float, never far from our fractured selves, forever wanting to find meaning, wanting to play a part, wanting to create new creative patterns of being, … and searching for the center. Without our realizing it, they coalesce and intersect with other threads of our lives and soon there is a texture and coherence which we, perhaps, did not initially see, looking for it elsewhere, until we could no longer ignore its relevance and place within the whole.

I was still very ‘young’ when I was asked to apply for a post as a secondary mathematics teacher in an all-boys traditional and historic independent school in South Africa. I was an education student and the school concerned had enquired about me at my university and ‘done their homework’ as to who I was, what I could do and how I could ‘add value’ to their school. When the telephone call came, I was taken aback! There were very few jobs available and too many graduating education students. Very few would ever get the chance to teach, let alone be offered an interview. And now ‘they’ were calling ‘me’! The country had been through ‘states of emergency’ and the economy was very weak. My only option, if I wanted to try and teach, was to apply to teach in an ‘all white’ school and, being classified ‘all white’, to become a member of an ‘all white’ teachers’ union, if I was ever offered a post at all! That, in principle, I could not do! So, it was a mixed blessing when the call came. “At least,” I thought, “it is a multi-racial environment, albeit an elitist traditional all-boys school.”

I taught at the school for almost a decade, and, for the most part, it was a positive experience and I have sacred and tender memories of my interaction with students and staff, and of the role they played in my life and I in theirs. I loved to teach and I naively thought, at the beginning, that that was all that would be needed for acceptance into the school. I soon learnt the rules on the ground and the social codes for survival in this very patriarchal environment. I learnt, at first, that I had to be very many times better than any other male teacher to be granted a modicum of ‘respect’. And ‘respect’ was key to survival! ‘Respect’ from the students and ‘respect’ from the other staff members. Respect, in this context, was something that had to be ‘earned’. You had to prove yourself and, being a woman, that meant proving yourself over and over again, ‘beyond doubt’. I offered my students my enthusiasm, my love of teaching and my joy of teaching young people. But I also knew that I had to ‘get results’. And that I did! My students achieved well and I developed a reputation as an ‘effective teacher’ in the community and further a field within the independent school family. But this was still not quite enough within the teaching environment at the school. I was still a woman…

There were very few women teachers at the school at the time and none that were ‘young’ and female, other than myself, teaching in a prominent curriculum subject such as mathematics. It was an alienating experience for me as a woman, but the satisfaction I felt from my interaction with my students greatly compensated for it. I tried to blinker myself from the blatant chauvinism I often was forced to endure and accept, keeping my head down, focused on my work and my students, and hoping outwardly that if I didn’t ‘make waves’, it would somehow go away or, at least, become more invisible. Inside me, I knew it wouldn’t, that the layers of ‘white patriarchy’ were deeply entrenched and hegemonic, informed by the rituals and traditions within the school and the dominance of its colonial cultural ethos. I realized that this was how the power of prejudice operated, … that it makes its mode of control invisible and irreproachable in context and that it takes some legitimate power base from within another context to begin to contest it. I was alone, vulnerable and weakly positioned within the context, all because I was a woman, and there was no legitimate space for a woman’s voice in this place. But, I needed the job, I loved my job in the classroom, and I was trying my best….

One day, after a little while at the school, a male member of staff confronted me at a mathematics department staff meeting, suggesting that my students were ‘doing so well’ simply because I had seen the examination papers beforehand and I was ‘obviously’ teaching towards the exam. His evidence? Well, this was the interesting part! His argument was that: “it is not possible for the students of a young female teacher with so little experience to be achieving such consistently high results.” The Voice was singular and uncontestable. It was situated in a place whose values and principles allowed for such blatant prejudice, illegitimating the voice of the victim. Although the overlying principle of ‘respect’ was that you had ‘to earn’ it, this was the underlying rule… that if you were a ‘woman’ you could never ‘earn it’, … that ‘earning it’ was the precinct of men only, that you were exempt from these rules simply by ‘being’ a woman, and that the ‘right to earn it’ was beyond your control. I realized, even in my outrage, that I had overstepped the mark of the rules of this context in playing out the very rules that informed it… that I had achieved ‘too highly’, I had ‘earned the respect’ too well and I had shown them up … and they didn’t like it … it made them uncomfortable and threatened. It began to challenge the existing stereotypes on women teachers and achievement, and made a mockery of the man-made rules of this context. I was beating them at their own game. How dare I? Who was I to challenge the existing social relations? I was being an upstart, even in my silence, through being ‘good’ at what I was supposed to be good at….

Even as I expressed my outrage at the blatant sexism of the remark, I knew that to take the issue further as a complaint to the principal or school board, would be to provide it, in this context, with some ‘legitimacy’ and to forever feel the shroud of doubt hanging over me. The other members of staff were obviously shocked by the male member of staff’s unexpected challenge and in their bodily-visible discomfort and embarrassment, they remained silent, watching to see how I would ‘handle the situation’. Would I ‘handle it like a man’, the only way to ‘handle’ situations in this context?! I was all alone, a victim in my own department… no one daring to stand up for me like a decent ‘human’ would. I was caught visibly and firmly in a double-bind, although, perhaps, it only highlighted that I had, in fact, never been otherwise in this context. I was forced, yet again, as if I had not had to do this enough, to ‘prove’ my innocence, to exonerate myself by turning myself inside out, being more ‘male’ than the men. I was a suspected criminal by being woman and I had to prove my ‘manliness’ so as to divest myself of the charge of criminality.

It was the practice at the school for each member of the mathematics staff to be assigned the task of setting several examination papers in mathematics and to moderate other mathematics examination papers for each grade. I challenged the department not to give me any examination setting or moderating assignments for the upcoming examinations and we would prove the veracity or otherwise of the male member of staff’s accusation. And so it was done. I quite enjoyed the freedom of not having to set examinations that half-year. More importantly, I enjoyed being able to teach my students with some freedom without having to avoid certain kinds of questions because I had known that there were similar ones on the examination paper. I knew that such a practice was not accepted here… that it would be construed as providing unfair advantage to your own class students over other class sets… a form of cheating. And I say this with ambivalence, because I am not entirely convinced of the unsoundness of the practice … as if preparing students for an examination is so criminal… but these were the rules on the ground and I knew them and, ironically, made sure to practice them so as ‘to survive’. Ironically, not knowing what was on the examination papers gave me the freedom to teach and prepare my students for the upcoming examinations unhindered by these other considerations. It was liberating!

And so the examinations came and went and my students achieved even more highly than before! I was elated! I had ‘proven’ myself unequivocally at their own game. But it had no joy. I expected some announcement… maybe some comment… I even hoped for an apology to be given to me. Perhaps I still had, or wanted to have, faith in them … more faith in them than they had in me…. I waited…. There was nothing…. Only silence…. This time the silence came from them, but it was still my silence they held inside it. It was a silence of power, with the silence of alienation subsumed within.

So eventually I raised the issue myself. I made an announcement! At a department meeting I stood up and thanked the person concerned for providing me with the opportunity to teach my students with some freedom, away from the tyrannical considerations of the evaluation instruments at the school… I rubbed it in a bit… I had so little opportunity to rub things in of this nature… I told them what a wonderful pre-exam teaching experience I had had, that they should try it some time … that it was a liberating experience and that last, but not least, I was thankful and grateful for the opportunity for my students to have been granted the opportunity to do even better than before! Thank you! … There was silence. Nothing … nothing was said. No comment was ever made about the issue again. I knew, though, that they thought that I had taken it ‘like a man.’ I was still conforming to male rules… I had shown my disgust, but, according to them, I had kept my ‘dignity’ in that context, … in a context, ironically, that allowed you no real dignity … that was the precinct of men!

I continued to teach at the school for many years and after a time I realized that I had become part of ‘their’ family whether they liked it or not. They now tolerated my sex and reconstructed my gender because I had become an old-timer. I was simply a familiar part of the fabric of the school that could not be done away with. I had a part to play in the history of the family, albeit an uncomfortable one for them, for I continued to gain a reputation for ‘effective teaching’ and for my students’ achievements. I realized that I had become an ‘honourary male’ to them within the school, and at the same time, contradictorily and similarly as usual, I was also the school’s mascot. They also became a part of me, like a family with siblings you don’t always get along with but love nonetheless. But, for me, the full trust could never be regained. I learned to care for them, but unlike the way I cared for my students, which was caring wholly, I cared for them without full or real respect…. They had taken that from me forever! …

Once, when I was still in elementary school, towards the end of my last grade in that school, I overheard my mathematics teacher in conversation with my mother. My mathematics teacher’s name was Mr. Nieken and he was a strict and stern male teacher. But I hadn’t minded him. I liked mathematics and he hadn’t been a bad teacher. He was telling my mother how good I was in mathematics and that he believed in my abilities. But then, as if he had said what shouldn’t have been said, he added a quick addendum: “ … but, it is usually the boys that take over from the girls later on. Usually, when they mature, it is the boys that become better than the girls… I put my money on Brent Sharper,” he said. I was heartbroken at the time. I had never thought of my sex as informing my learning. I couldn’t understand what being a girl had to do with it … or what it had to do with my future success or lack thereof in mathematics. Why was being a girl a necessary limiting criterion for success in this subject? Later, I learned that this was the agency of prejudice and I never allowed it to prescribe the limits of possibility for me, although I learned to see how it delineated the spaces of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ for others. I learned to see how principles of power informed pedagogic practices, as well as ways of being and living in the world, and I could recognize it when it was happening and understood, to some small degree, what it must feel like to the victim(s).

There have been times when I once dreamed of bumping into my old mathematics teacher in the street and telling him that I had achieved a B.Sc. degree in mathematics and that I was a successful secondary school mathematics teacher. I may even have told him, in my dream, of my future success in a Ph.D. program in mathematics education, just to make him eat his words. But that has no appeal now. If I saw him in the street today, he would probably be a very old man and I would be sorry for him… sorry for him in case he had never overcome his prejudice…. sorry for him as a teacher of young people for the heavy weight on his soul! I know that it would be a pitiful experience for me!

Over the years, I have come to realize how the threads of past happenings often tear our souls and that the broken threads of these come together again, in good time, in a woven fabric that the paths of life inform and which could be made to heal wounds. We can choose to listen, or not, to the searching of the broken threads in their paths towards new meaning. One way would be to weave a shroud to hide the pain…. Another would be to weave a tapestry of vivid colour that tells the story of lives well lived and makes visible its elements in ways that can uplift and empower others, thereby claiming one’s own dignity. I have found some dignity in my own practices, in the classroom, in my mothering, my marriage and in my research work. I haven’t always succeeded in what I have aimed to do, but I am still trying! And in that trying, lies my dignity. I have found it through trying to push the boundaries of possibility for those that I am responsible for, and for others where I can, and by attempting to be a ‘worthy example’. This has been my personal goal. I have gained my own dignity by recognizing the dignity in others and trying to give back dignity … and by attempting to weave, through my life stories, tapestries of hope!

Dr. Swanson received her PhD from UBC in 2004