Sexism At School? A Letter From The Gym Teacher

by Kerry M.
Originally Published: 
A girl in a white dress with red dots is sitting on an orange bench, who is experiencing sexism at s...

Today I went through my daughter’s backpack and took out all the crumpled pieces of paper stuffed in the bottom. Among them were some ads for local voice lessons, a form to join the PTO, and a phys ed homework assignment.

In case you can’t read it, here’s what it says: “…Picture Day…role model and leader…plan ahead what to wear…girls who wear a skirt or a dress will earn 25 points…girls and boys who wear nice pants and a collar shirt will earn 15 points…”

Wait, what!? I had to read it again to make sure I fully understood what was written. Yup, I got it. And I was fucking horrified. I immediately thought that I needed to address it in some way.

But then I thought about what that would look like. Despite what people think of me, I am not someone who is comfortable with creating conflict. I have often kept my mouth shut for the sake of being liked and viewed as someone who is easy to get along with. There have been many times I’ve been put off by something that goes on, but I usually just let it go so as to not “rock the boat.” This is especially true when it comes to my daughter’s school experiences. I don’t want to be one of “those” parents.

In this case, my own kid wouldn’t have been affected as she freaking loves to put on skirts and dresses. So, why not keep my horror to myself and just let this one go?

I’ll tell you why, because now that I’ve been studying social work I realize the importance of raising your voice when something is unjust. I’m learning to accept the fact that it may mean that not everyone likes me, but that I can feel good about myself and my ability to speak up against things that aren’t fair. So, I decided to send a message to the principal of my daughter’s school.

What I felt like writing:

Are you fucking kidding me with this shit? You’re saying that my kid has to wear a dress to get extra credit? It’s the year 20-fucking-15, you assholes! I feel like puking from how sexist and inappropriate this is. You suck!

What I actually wrote:

Good morning,

Please know that I am not someone who ever feels the need to write to the principal of my daughter’s school. This is the first time I’ve done so in the 6 years [my daughter] has attended this school. I am a fairly laid-back parent who trusts the teachers and administrators to do right by the children in their care. However, I could not ignore the absolute horror I felt when I read the homework assignment sent home with my child this week.

I’m not sure if you are aware, but the 5th grade phys ed assignment includes a section on rewarding the children for dressing “for success” on picture day. I don’t take issue with that, as I agree that it’s essential for children to learn that presentation is an important part of being taken seriously.

However, the assignment then goes on to say that “Girls who wear a skirt or a dress will earn 25 points.” But “Girls who wear nice pants and a collar shirt will earn 15 points.”

This is an enormous concern for me. The notion that girls should wear dresses is archaic and detrimental to a young girl’s ability to express her individuality. It also sends the message that a girls’ worth is wrapped up in how pretty she looks. That is just not okay. I’m also completely appalled that an educator thinks it’s appropriate to reward a child for conforming to social norms.

In this day in age when we encourage and support people to be true to themselves I find it disgusting that a child should be penalized for doing so. Surely, you realize that not all girls are comfortable in dresses, and I personally know many, many woman who are extremely successful who have never even put one on. I’m sure you do as well.

Clearly, I feel quite passionately about this issue. I think it’s important to point out that my own child happens to love wearing dresses and had planned on wearing one on picture day even before the assignment was given. So really, it would have been easier to turn a blind eye to this matter. However as a parent, I am committed to showing my daughter that standing up for what you believe in, even if it’s not something that directly affects you, is a vital part of being a good person.

As a social worker and an educator I think it’s critical to instill tolerance in children. I’ve done my best to raise my daughter to be accepting of differences and I’m saddened that her school is not supporting that message.

I do hope something will be done to rectify this situation.

Pretty good, right? I feel I was able to convey my concerns in a way that was level-headed and mature (although I did giggle when I wrote “rectify” tee-hee).

I felt sick to my stomach as I waited for a response, and fortunately it didn’t take long. Here is what I received back from the principal, 36 minutes after I sent my message:

Thank you for your email sharing your concerns about the PE homework assignment. I will be speaking with [the phys ed teacher] as soon as I return to the building this afternoon. I will connect with you once I have more information.

Thank you again for bringing this to my attention.

The nausea subsided a bit, but there was still so much left unsaid that I couldn’t help but feel anxious. Now, in some weird twist of fate I got a call about an hour later from the school nurse and I ended up having to go in to pick her up (don’t worry, she’s fine). And when I got there the gym teacher who created assignment was standing outside, watching the 3rd graders run laps around the school. It took every ounce of my strength to get out of the car as suddenly I reverted to my 8th grade, insecure self. Then I reminded myself that she maybe a) didn’t know who the hell I am, b) didn’t know about the message yet, and c) wouldn’t have any desire to talk to me about it.

I managed to get in the school without her saying anything to me. Phew. On my way out, however, she came over to me and asked if I was willing to talk (right in front of my child, mind you, which is totally uncool). I sent my daughter to the car and chatted with the teacher. I’m not going to restate everything that was said, but she did say they were planning on changing the assignment to better reflect the changing times. She then went on to scold me for going directly to the principal instead of to her (honestly that never even occurred to me, although I probably should have considered including her in the original message), and that she was going to be “read the riot act” because of what I did. She also made sure to mention that she has been sending home that same assignment for 25 years (well, hello?) and that no other parent had ever complained.

I felt like a foolish child and wanted to cry, but managed to keep my composure and explain to her that it wasn’t my intention to get her in trouble. My concerns were valid and I reached out to the principal because I thought it was important that she know about them. I walked away from that conversation feeling bullied, but proud that I stood my ground. Now I’m worried that she hates me, but that’s my own issue for another time.

But wait, there’s more…

I couldn’t just let it end there. I sent a follow-up message to the principal. Here it is:

Thank you for addressing my concerns. As it turns out, I was at the school earlier picking up [my daughter] and [the phys ed teacher] took the time to speak with me. I’m glad to hear that the assignment will be changed and that all children who make efforts to dress nicely will be rewarded equally.

She also expressed her disappointment in my going directly to you with my concerns and that made me feel awful. It was never my intention to get anyone in trouble, but I thought it was important that the principal of the school know about my concerns. I hope we can all agree that, ultimately, what matters most is that the children are all treated fairly despite their clothing preference.

Thank you again for taking quick action.

And now I’m done. I think. Lesson of the story: Stand up for what you believe in, even if it means you won’t be popular. Liking yourself is way more important than anyone else liking you. (Now, I’ll just need to repeat that until I believe it.)

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