Presented at Women in TESOL Conference. March 11,
2016, Clark, Philippines
I am deeply honored to be among the few males present
at the "Women in TESOL conference," and also invited to give these
opening remarks. But I am also uniquely qualified: You may not know this about
me, but half of my ancestors were women.
In addition, some of these ancestors played a very
powerful role in my upbringing. I am,
without question, my mother's son as well as my aunt's nephew (Mom and Aunt
Sadie were best friends as well as sisters).
Table one shows how mom and I are similar in several
Table 1: Dad, Mom, and me
yè māo zi
yè māo zi
Before discussing table one I must, of course, say
that my dad was wonderful. Our differences are not value judgements.
Dad was a classic morning person, with all the beliefs
that go with it. He never said this, but
I think he thought that sleeping after 7 am was just not right. But he brought
Mom coffee in bed every morning, and let me sleep late whenever I could. Mom was a night owl ("Yè māo zi" in
Mandarin) and I am too: I generally don't wake up until the sun goes down, no
matter how much sleep I had the night before. Sleep only seems to help me when
it is during the day. Mom never got enough sleep because she felt that it was
moral to get up on time; as a result she spent her days trying to stay awake,
and her nights trying to fall asleep.
had no addictions. As a night person, Mom was seriously addicted to coffee. I
resisted this – in those days we thought coffee was bad for you - but I gave in when I was 25 years old and
teaching in Ethiopia. My life changed
completely, for the better: "So this is how everybody else feels?" And mom and I had many happy hours drinking
the drink made from the magic beans.
loved the great outdoors: Mom and I never saw the point of pretending it is the
year 1291, without modern facilitities.
Some case histories from
that I have established my credentials, let's talk about women. It might give us more perspective if we look
at cases not from education but from another field: mathematics. I will
describe the careers and obstacles experienced by two female mathematicians and
then discuss education in modern times very briefly, and draw some conclusions.
Both achieved great success in their work, both were able to pursue their
interests, but both had help, and neither overcame all barriers to woemn
present in their times.
Somerville was born in the late 1700's in Scotland, a time when girls
were not usually schooled. Her mother taught her basic reading so she could
read the bible, but at age 10 Sommerville "could scarcely read"
(Osen, 1974). At this time, her father decided to end her life of indolence and
sent her to a "fashionable" and very strict girls' boarding
school. She lasted only one year. On
returning home, she started reading light fiction for pleasure, dispite family
When she was 14 years old, Somerville overheard some
math lessons given to her brother, and developed an interest in algebra and
geometry. She managed to get a copy of
Euclid's Elements of Geometry and studied it every night: "Her mother was
appalled and shamed by such aberrant behavior, and the servants were instructed
to confiscate Mary's supply of candles so that she could not study at night.
However, by this time Mary had gone through the first six books of Euclid
…" (Osen, 1974, p. 56). This was
followed by years of independent study, until, when she was 27, she entered a
mathematics contest held by a mathematics journal, and submitted the winning
solution to a problem posted in the journal. The editor of the journal became
her mentor, and guided her stunning career and math and science. An inheritance
from her first husband who passed away at a young age allowed her to pursue her
interests in science and mathematics.
Mary Somerville became one of the best-known scientists
and mathematicians in England. Her work led to the eventual discovery of the
planet Neptune, and she published texts in mathematics, as well as Physical
Geography and Molecular Science. She
continued to work until she was 89 years old.
Amalie Noether (pronounced NER-ter) lived from1882-to
1934. There is no question that she was one
of the great mathematicians of all time. She worked in abstract algebra and
ring theory, and her contributions, according to Harvard physicit Lisa Randall,
to modern physics, some saying they were as important as relativity. Another physicist, Ransom Stephens, has said
that "You can make a strong case
that her theorem ("Noether's theorem") is the backbone on which all
of modern physics is built” (both
citations from Ander, 2012).
Her work, however,
is not well-known. Ander (2012) quotes David Goldberg, who conducuted a "Noether poll" of physicists: “Surprisingly few
could say exactly who she was or why she was important. A few others knew her
name but couldn’t recall what she’d done, and the majority had never heard of
Noether was born
in Germany and was part of a "mathematical family": Her father and
brother were mathematicians. At this time, German universities did not allow women students, and she
could only audit university courses. But she was able to take the examinations,
and eventually earned a Ph.D. summa cum laude.
She met prominent
mathematicians, such as David Hilbert, who argued in favor of her being
appointed a professor at the University of Göttingen, despite
opposition because of her gender: “I do not see that the sex of the candidate
is an argument against her. After all,
we are a university, not a bathhouse” (from Anders, 2012). Hilbert failed to make his case, so instead hired
her himself as a "guest lecturer."
Noether, who was Jewish,
had to leave Germany in 1933 because of Hitler's rise to power. Albert Einstein helped her get a job at Bryn
Mawr College. She died in 1934 after
surgery, at age 53.
Despite the obstacles they faced, both Somerville and
Noehter were able to follow their interests, their passion for math and
science. Somerville found a mentor, the
journal editor who helped her, and had financial resources, and Noether had the
advantage of being part of a family of mathematicians, and had influential
Somerville's case also adds to the considerable evidence
showing that an "early start" in school is not essential (Krashen,
2014), and that "light
reading" provides a helpful preparation for "heavier reading"
problems in education
have come a long way in overcoming gender barriers, but problems remain.
education is still dominated by the views of males, and largely males from
English-speaking countries, PhDs who have never spent a day alone in a room
with ten–year-olds, and with little knowledge of the real world of schools. In
other words, people like me.
cure is straightforward: A closer look at what "experts" really have
to offer us, and providing a platform and journal space to more people.
Conferences like this one are a giant step forward.
According to my
observations, school administration in the United States is largely the domain
of males with little teaching experience, males with an obsession for
technology and high test-scores and little knowledge of and interest in
day-to-day affairs of their school. There are, of course, exceptions.
cure for this situation is also straightforward. Frank Smith has pointed out
that school administrators are trained in educational management, not
educational leadership. School leaders
have to be experienced teachers, with knowledge of both practice and theory.
The real cure is to
allow people to pursue their interests regardless of gender. Both men and women educators should have
equal opportunity to be teachers or administrators, as fits their talents and
desires. A friend of the family, fluent
in Spanish, was very happy as a kindergarten/first grade teacher in a bilingual
school in California. He told me that
his administrators were surprised that he wasn't interested in getting an
administrative credential and becoming an administrator himself. As far as he
could tell, the chief reason was that he was male.
is not the only barrier to success.
There are, of course, many others. The most powerful is poverty, and we
can also add minority group membership and psychological problems due to
dysfunctional family relationships. I
experienced none of these barriers. Even so, everything was slow and hard; I
can't imaging how I could have succeeded had I been female, poor or even
working class, minority, or had come from a family with serious problems.
is a lot of talk today about grit and determination: they tell us that with enough grim
determination, students can overcome all obstacles. Nonsense. I needed all the
grit and determination I had in order to do well without these barriers. If any had been present, I don't see how I
would have made it.
the case of gender, women who did well despite massive gender discrimination,
such as Somervile and Noether, not only had grit and determination, but, as I
pointed out earlier, they had help: Somerville's mentor and inheritance and
Neother's family and colleagues. We can't all count on getting by with a little
help from our friends. We need to do two things: reduce and eventually eliminate
the barriers and make sure school provides everybody with the help they need to
develop their talents.
Anders, N. 2012. The mighty mathematician
you've never heard of. New York Times,
S. 2014. Literacy education: Need we start early? Language and Language Teaching (Azim Premji University and the Vidya Bhawan Society), 3(2)(9): 1-7.
(available at www.sdkrashen.com).
Krashen, S. 2012. Developing academic
proficiency: Some hypotheses. International Journal of Foreign Langauge
Teaching, (2): 8-15. (available at ijflt.com)
Osen, M. (1974). Women in mathematics. Cambridge: MIT Press.