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Teaching girls bravery instead of perfection

By guest contributor Alice Saldanha

Reshma Saujani’s 2016 TED talk ‘Teach girls bravery, not perfection’ has stayed with me over the last five years. I think because her message spoke an undeniable truth.

school children in classroom
Photo by dolgachov on Envato

From a young age, we sometimes subtly (and often not-so-subtly) reinforce concerning gender stereotypes that encourage girls to be ‘perfect’ and boys to be ‘brave’. This is evidently problematic; while our boys are taught to climb to the highest branch without fear of falling, of failing; we teach girls to play it safe, get good grades, be amenable, humble, reticent.

Even now, in the 21st century, we are teaching girls to fit into an age-old stereotype of female perfection.

But teaching girls to be perfect is dangerous. If we teach our girls to aspire to perfection, essentially, we disempower them, because we all know perfection is impossible.

Instead, we need to teach girls that they don’t have to be perfectly suitable for a job to go for it; they don’t have to regulate their emotions perfectly to be heard; they don’t have to get every answer perfectly right in class, and they don’t have to change their bodies to meet social media’s perception of the perfect female body.

Bravery, and a willingness to fail - sometimes spectacularly - should be at the forefront of the girls’ education movement. As Saujani argues, our focus should be on teaching girls that being brave enough to try, to be their vulnerable, authentic selves, regardless of the results or reactions of others, is something to be celebrated.

As an English teacher, I show Saujani’s talk on International Women’s Day every year, with every class. Why? Because each year my students’ reactions reminds me that while so much has been done to combat these gender stereotypes, so much still needs to be done.

It also reminds me that aspiring to unrealistic standards of perfection manifests in almost all aspects of a young girl’s life: from social media’s emphasis on the ideal female form, to a fear of being assertive, to the hesitancy girls feel when vocalising their opinions or ideas within the classroom, and the imposter syndrome many young women feel in the workplace.

So, what can we, as educators, do to actively work against these implicit biases? And how can we address the gaping divide in the way we educate girls and boys?

Over the last few years, I have observed an encouraging movement amongst teachers to be actively attentive to the gendered language and rhetoric used in the classroom. In an effort to banish the polarised narrative that boys should be brave, and girls should be perfect, many teachers are eradicating gender pronouns, adapting examples that adhere to gender stereotypes and challenging the all-too-common response that ‘it’s just how it is’ when dealing with sexist behaviour.

But there is more we can do.

Nurturing bravery means adapting our lesson plans to normalise failure within the classroom, because being brave means being willing to fail. This can be achieved by asserting an expectation that within your classroom the process of mistake-making, recognition and correction while working towards the completion of a task, is as important as the product of learning itself.

For example, within the context of an English essay, encouraging students to evidence their editing process in a different colour, literally and figuratively highlights that it isn’t normal to ‘get it right’ on a first attempt. Feedback should also be given in tiny, incremental steps and the focus should be on ‘mastering’ a skill rather than creating a perfect end-product.

School teacher with female student in classroom
Photo by monkeybusiness on Envato

I’ve personally found that the most powerful lessons I teach are the ones when I share imperfect examples with pupils, and with their help, work together to slowly re-craft and correct. I’ve also found that if I, as their teacher, actively model mistake-making when writing my own exemplars in front of a class, asking students to help me identify where I’ve gone wrong and how to correct it, I’m normalising mistake- making and imperfection within my classroom.

The classroom then becomes a safe place where imperfection is both necessary and celebrated.

These strategies work for both sexes, but I think more needs to be done for girls. Encouraging girls to take up space in the classroom by ensuring that for every boy that answers a question, so too does a girl, is a start.

But girls should also be encouraged to vocalise their ideas regardless of the ‘rightness’ of their answers. This can be easily achieved by disallowing ‘I don’t knows’ and instead asking girls to think, not know. I’ve found giving girls answer starters like ‘one answer could be’, or simply asking them to imagine what an expert on the topic would say, are powerful in the way it shows young women that I’m interested in their thoughts, not whether their answer is correct.

Furthermore, banishing self-deprecating phrases such as; ‘I don’t think this is right’, ‘I’m not really sure’, ‘I think I’m wrong’, and asking girls to replace this speech with positive self-talk; ‘I’m going to give it a go…’, ‘This question is a bit of challenge but I think…’, ‘...could this be a possible answer?’ emphasises to young women that their ideas and opinions are always valid, and valued.

These tweaks in our practice are simple. If we start to actively embed these ideas within our planning, our teacher talk, our questioning and our feedback, I have no doubt we will continue to empower girls to think, speak and act bravely.

Read more articles from Alice's blog here:


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