Sometimes she wants to protect them, sometimes she wants to, as she says, "kick their butts." But there's one thing that Theresa Carter knows about herself and her students--who fall into that category called "at-risk"--at Simons Middle School in Pomona. She often treats the girls differently from the boys.
"Basically with a guy, no matter what the personality, I'll use more patience," said Carter, 51, who also has four children of her own. "If I find a girl has a strong personality--like me--I'll be more confrontational. I guess I don't have a lot of patience for females who are manipulative and use their femininity to get ahead."
The complex tangle of gender roles in school was the topic at a Saturday workshop for teachers sponsored by the National Conference, a group that promotes multicultural understanding. The day was designed to provoke teachers to examine gender issues in their own lives so they could better look at how gender plays a role in their treatment of male and female students.
"I try to make up for what I'm probably not aware that I'm doing," said a young male teacher. "I know girls are typically called on less and volunteer less. . . . I try to make an effort to reverse that. So I call on them more."
But before the teachers could tackle the issue of whether they treat boys and girls equally, they waded through issues on how they treat one another. That alone took most of the day for the elementary and high school teachers--a diverse group of mostly women who gathered in a large room at All People's Christian Center downtown.
"If there seems to be a lack of discipline in a woman's classroom, a woman has no control," said Jannis Brandenburg, 27, who teaches Spanish and social studies to seventh- and eighth-graders at a school in Escondido. "If there's a lack of discipline in a man's classroom, 'Oh, he's so free-form. . . .' "
A chorus of "mmm-hmmms" wafted through the room. "Best thing I heard all day," one woman murmured.
They even talked about why they were a group of 16 women--and only six men.
"I think, 'What the hell am I doing here?' " said Gennaro Di Massa, 48, who teaches English at Jordan High School and coaches basketball. "I should be home getting ready to watch the UCLA-USC football game. It would be nice to know other men would come here to do this."
One male teacher confessed to being happy he was paired with a woman for an exercise, believing she would be a more understanding listener than a man.
"I had this expectation of empathy from women," he said. None of the participants were neophytes to this process of examining their lives as teachers in a multicultural society--all had attended at least one teacher retreat sponsored by the National Conference, formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
"I value the lessons I take home from these retreats," said Di Massa. "I don't think a lot of men want to take the risk of looking at their attitudes about gender."
The one thorny issue that galvanized the group and crossed lines of gender and ethnicity was this: to touch or not to touch.
"I'm very sensitive," said Elliott Levitch, 52, who teaches learning-disabled first-, second-, and third-graders at Monlux Elementary School in North Hollywood. "But I have to turn off my sensitivity because it's not accepted. My kids need hugs and I have hugs to give but I don't dare. The women can do that all the time."
But at a time when charges of sexual abuse and harassment are taken more seriously than ever, all the teachers said they felt constrained about physical expression.
"I clearly hug and touch--but never without others around," said one woman teacher.
Some students taunt teachers with threats of accusations, teachers said.
"Kids know that's their legal recourse: 'You touch me and I'm going to sue you,' " said Patti Scroggins, 48, a sixth-grade teacher at Horace Mann Middle School. "I got in someone's face yesterday and I said, 'I'm going to sue you for disrupting this class!' "
Of course, there are exceptions.
"I'm pushing myself to touch people more," said Henry Aronson, 35, who was a facilitator at the Saturday event and leads college skill workshops at Cal State San Marcos. He has found that a squeeze on the arm or a touch on the shoulder is comforting to his college-age students hungry for attention from a teacher. "It totally makes a difference with the people I work with."
According to Aronson, it's nurturing. "I'm just imitating women," he said.