Education’s Elephant in the Room

Christine Ravesi-WeinsteinBlog, Connect Better, Lead Better

TL;DR:

  • Silencing education’s elephant in the room by bringing attention to the responsibility of male leaders.
  • The responsibilities of male leaders in a female dominated profession include initiating necessary conversations, being upfront, asking questions, listening, and summarizing points made in conversation to validate the other person.

I grew up the youngest of four and the only girl. My mother tried to get me to play with dolls and wear pink, but of more interest to me was wearing my brothers’ hand-me-downs and playing sports with their friends in the yard. 

I had a nice, cozy, little bedroom with many stuffed animals. My prized stuffy was a Mickey Mouse dressed like Goofy named Meems. There were many other characters lying around, including a little stuffed elephant. I wasn’t a big fan of that elephant, but he was a big fan of mine. 

The elephant in the room emerged when I was a child.

I didn’t spend much time around girls. My best friends who lived two houses down included a family of three boys, the oldest just a couple of years younger than me—as my brothers, dad, and I would put it, my “other brothers.”  We spent every summer together in their backyard pool.

All the years of competing with the boys in the yard paid off and I excelled at sports, including soccer, basketball, and softball. My mother signed me up for youth sports and my talent landed me on the boys’ soccer team when I was no more than 10 years old. Our coach was a female, the mother of a player. There was one other girl on the team, but she left to join the girls’ team after just one season. 

All of these strategies may seem simple, and they are. But for the female teachers that are working with our students, they are steps that make them feel heard, cared for, validated, and valued at work. Click To Tweet  

The elephant in the room continued through high school.

I continued playing with the boys until the unrest about the best player on the team being a girl got to be too much among the families. Oddly enough, right at the same time, the elephant, who was so nondescript for so many years, had started making noise at night, disrupting my ability to rest peacefully. At the time, the correlation escaped me.

I played three sports at a competitive level for the remainder of my youth through high school with other girls, but with all male coaches. There was no female role model, which I could have benefited from at the time. I needed someone to confide in about this elephant in my room.

As I got to the end of my high school career, the little elephant had grown bigger and a lot noisier. I found ways to appease him. When he was cranky, I supported and calmed him. If he needed space, I moved him away from all the other animals; Meems never complained. When he needed to eat, I dropped everything and got him a meal. And if he was tired, I left so he could sleep. 

The elephant in the room waited through college.

My college years were quite the blur, as I am sure they were for most. I didn’t play sports and I wasn’t involved in too much else, other than being a Resident Assistant. My time was filled. I studied hard, got good grades, and spent time with friends. My elephant didn’t come to school with me. Fortunately, he chose to stay home; I know that’s not the case for everyone. 

When I left my undergraduate studies and made my way towards a career path in graduate school, I was living with the elephant again, back in my childhood home. He’d grown a lot bigger since I’d left, but was much quieter. We’d make eye contact every day.

He always had this look in his eyes, but only engaged on occasion.

The elephant in the room continued to exist through graduate school.

He was there when my first professor in graduate school failed me and didn’t have the decency to look at me when I approached him to ask what I needed to do to improve. When a friend of mine began showing up at the house without invitation and pressuring me into a relationship. the elephant was there. And when I was interviewed for my first job by a man who barely looked at me while answering his questions, he was there, too.

He shuffled me in and out like he had much better things to do. 

Although the elephant was quieter overall, I started to hate his constant presence in my room. He started engaging in a very overwhelming practice. The times when he did make a fuss had started to be times in which the stakes were a lot higher for me. 

The elephant in the room has followed me into my career.

After completing graduate school and earning my degree, I accepted my first teaching job. I lived in my childhood home for another year. My relationship with the elephant remained unchanged.

When I moved out on my own, however, that was no longer the case. Unlike in college when the elephant chose to stay home, now he came with me. In fact, this was the case for every residence I lived in thereafter. Stupid elephant. 

As if his consistent presence wasn’t bad enough, each time we moved, he packed more and more baggage to bring with him. How many things can one elephant accumulate in a lifetime?!

He was good about letting me keep his things stored away for a while, but as I got older, his baggage grew, and space became an issue. His “stuff” started pushing its way out of the storage room doors. 

The ever-present elephant in educational leadership.

I taught for 11 years before I began my journey in Educational Leadership. As I became more confident as a professional, the elephant became more and more present and resistant to my growth. He started getting argumentative. That elephant always had something to say about why I shouldn’t or couldn’t. The more I argued back, the more offensive he got. 

The elephant even started coming to work with me. He would join me at leadership tables and dismiss my input outright.  The elephant would sit at the head of the lunch table and make me take the last seat down the other end. He would laugh with all his friends and talk behind my back.

The elephant even started manipulating me behind the scenes…asking for my help and opinions, implementing my ideas, and then not acknowledging my contributions. 

The elephant had gotten so unmanageable for me, I had to find a way to leave the relationship. I took another step up the educational ladder and moved to a different district to continue my work in leadership.

And I didn’t tell the elephant where I was going; I just up and left. He’d dug his feet in so deep that he cared less about where I’d gone, and more about how likely I was to fail now that I had. 

The elephant exists in every room for every young woman.

The elephant still lived with me, but during the day, he was no longer around. At least that was the case for a few months.

I was lulled into a false sense of security. The elephant was my roommate, but at least I found independence in my career.

The elephant wouldn’t allow it. Without any warning, he found me. He put me right back in my place in a dramatic way, and showed up in my office one day to rock my world. 

I felt small; inferior. That no matter what I brought to the professional leadership table, I would never be seen beyond my physical contribution. Beyond being a woman.

For the first time, I understood that the elephant in my room was never going to be silenced, at least not in my lifetime. 

Every young woman is born with an elephant in her room. There are days when he will be louder than others, and days when he will dictate her entire life. No matter how quiet he might be on any given day, she must quickly learn that he is never, ever, going away. 

Men in educational leadership have a shared responsibility.

We are all in the profession of teaching children and young adults academically and emotionally. But men in leadership have the responsibility to teach about the elephant in the room that is, well…them. 

Education is a profession with a much higher percentage of women in the field.

  • In 2017-2018, 76% of public school teachers were female, with an even higher percentage in elementary education.
  • When it came to positions of leadership, only 54% of elementary school principals were women. That number decreases to 26% at the secondary level.
  • As for superintendents, only 24% were females (Domenech, eSchool News 2012).

Men must find a way to empower the female teachers and aspiring leaders among their colleagues. It is their job to listen to females and communicate with them in a productive way. A way that provides them with the strength to continue to contribute. 

Many young teachers are excited, energetic, and eager to contribute to both the lives of their students and their school community. Men cannot stifle that energy. They must mold it into a productive use of knowledge and expertise.

They must lead inclusively, and stand clear of the status quo. 

Men have the power to stop fueling the elephant’s growth.

Men must take their leadership responsibility to guide female teachers along their journey because of what they have to offer professionally. This is true virtually and in person.

If a woman speaks out of turn, it has to be dealt with carefully. I hate that it’s this way, that as a male leader, there’s a more delicate hand that’s needed when addressing young women, but it’s the reality of the circumstance.

Seeing a group of grown, male, educational leaders with years of experience publicly shaming a young, aspiring female because of a simple miscommunication is about as ugly as it gets for women in education. It is the fuel that feeds the elephant’s growth. 

It can be difficult, especially when a woman in education speaks out of turn. But men have to remember that this woman has most likely been swinging at the elephant in her room for years. And she still can’t quiet him. She’s looking to you for help, because only her leaders can silence the elephant.

Male leaders should consider the following strategies when leading the female teachers in their buildings.

Take the lead.

As simple as this strategy may seem, it’s the most likely to be misinterpreted. Taking the lead does not mean using positional power. Too often I see male leaders using positional power just because they can.

Taking the lead means something different.

It means reaching out individually, and opening up the lines of communication. Especially if there is an issue or problem that needs discussing. I can’t speak for all women, however I do have the experience of being a young female teacher with male bosses. The thought of having to be the one to start the conversation can be paralyzing. Male educators need to take the lead and be the ones to initiate necessary discussions. 

Be upfront.

Being upfront is a strategy that is often overlooked in positions of power. Too often we take the approach that it is a bad idea to show your cards too soon.

As a young woman in leadership, I can tell you this is the wrong perspective. Not being upfront with teachers about the cause for communication only serves to intimidate. There is a need, in some circumstances, to document correspondence. Yet being upfront about why you need to speak to a teacher will ease minds and make for a fair, more productive conversation. 

Ask questions.

There is a reason that all conversations need to be had in the first place. You’ve come into some information that causes concern. Rather than present what you’ve heard as fact, ask the teacher to talk about an occurrence first.

It’s important to empower young female teachers to share their intentions before they are told a mistake was made. 

Listen.

All leaders began somewhere. There was a time when they were first year teachers too. It can be hard to remember exactly what that felt like, but it was overwhelming, I can assure you.

We want to be heard, and to know, through your body language and expression, that you are listening to us. That in that moment, our story matters.

Listening is not passive, it’s active. It doesn’t start and stop when the questions are asked, it continues until the conversation is over. Don’t perpetuate our feelings of dismissiveness by checking email or looking at your phone while we talk. Stop. Look at us. Listen. 

Summarize.

Listening can be exhausting, I get that. As a high school administrator, I do a lot of listening. But it’s no excuse to not give anyone the full attention she deserves.

Help yourself, and the teacher for that matter, by summarizing what you are hearing the teacher tell you. This will validate what she is telling you and will also help you remain focused on what you’re hearing. It will also give the teacher an opportunity to clarify anything if she misspoke. 

[scroll down to keep reading]

We need to feel valued.

All of these strategies may seem simple, and they are. But for the female teachers that are working with our students, they are steps that make them feel heard, cared for, validated, and valued at work. One of the number one reasons why people leave their jobs is because they don’t feel valued in the workplace.

This is even more the case for women in education. It’s why I left a district after 15 years. The elephant in that room had gotten unmanageable.

So please, men, we need you to lead us, especially now through uncharted waters. But we need you to do so with an eye on the elephant in our rooms. Please, make him smaller, and get him to quiet down. I need some rest at night. Listening is exhausting. 

Domenech, Daniel A. Why are Women so Underrepresented in eEducational Leadership? eSchool News. November 2, 2012.


About Christine Ravesi-Weinstein

Christine Ravesi-Weinstein is an avid writer and educator and is passionate about bridging the two with her advocacy for mental health. She currently serves as a high school Assistant Principal and previously worked as a high school science department chair for four years and classroom teacher for 15 years. Chistine is a Times 10 author and her first book, Anxious, is scheduled for publication in March 2020. Follow her on Twitter @RavesiWeinstein, on YouTube at The Runner’s High, read her other work here, and about her organization at http://www.runningfromanxiety.org; @ThinkRunFight.

Subscribe to Christine’s YouTube Channel.
Check Out Christine’s Other Work.
Learn More About Christine’s Story.

CLICK TO FOLLOW Christine Ravesi-Weinstein ON TWITTER