The Hardest Lesson I’ve Ever Taught

“Haha, you need help from a girl!”

He’s a 5th grader in the robotics club I help run. He’s 10, maybe 11, years old. He says those words to another boy in the club, who was indeed receiving help from a girl. And even as the words are still coming out of his mouth, I knew they need to be addressed.

I want to tell him that at that very moment, I too was getting help from one of the girls in the club. I want to tell him girls can be incredibly helpful. I want to tell him that I’ve received great help from incredible women, and that some of the smartest people I know are women.

I want to tell him that that doesn’t mean all women have to be helpful, or that women are only good at being helpful. I want to tell him that even when a woman isn’t the smartest person he knows, that’s ok, because the girls are just like boys, and some will be smarter and some won’t, and gender doesn’t matter for that.

I want to tell him that by using a girl to insult a boy that he was also insulting the girl. I want to tell him that the fact that girls are in the robotics club is a somewhat unusual thing. I want to tell him that girls being one third of the robotics club is even less common. I want to tell him that that number probably won’t last in the years ahead.

I want to tell him that insults just like that one will be repeated time and time again. I want to tell him that talking that way about the women around him will slowly drive them away from robotics, and from technology fields. I want to tell him that subtle sexism, and blatant, for that matter, is pervasive in STEM, and that sexism is hugely damaging to both individuals as they are and as they dream to be.

I want to tell him about sexism. I want to tell him about gender roles in society, and about how some of the ideas he’s already formed are not only wrong, but hurtful to others. I want to tell him that not only is mocking the other boy wrong, but that by using mockery to define manliness, he is spreading a malformed definition of what it means to be a man. I want to tell him that being manly doesn’t mean being above women.

I want to tell him that insulting others in the classroom is never tolerable. I want to tell him that, from the start, insulting the other boy is unacceptable. I want to tell him that asking questions and asking for help are the best ways to learn. I want to tell him that he should learn from anyone who can teach him, regardless of race, or gender, or age, or orientation, or any other factor that divides us.

I have, realistically, a few seconds to say about two sentences, before his attention span for my words cuts out. Even if that weren’t the case, I have to say all of this in a way that helps him learn, not that makes him feel burdened by gender roles and norms being unwillingly hoisted upon him. I have to communicate critically important ideas and messages to a middle schooler who hasn’t yet had the life experiences to really understand what I’m about to say. And I have, approximately, 10 seconds.

He completes his sentence, and a moment later, I begin trying to teach the most important lesson I’ll teach all year.

An Unplanned Lesson

While this blog will usually be about my experiences teaching coding, I have a wonderful recent story I can’t help but share.

On Friday mornings, I volunteer at a local elementary school, helping run a robotics club for 5th graders. This past Friday, there were a wonderful five minutes of learning that were totally unplanned (and unplann-able!), but that were the best few minutes of my day – and they didn’t have anything do to with robotics.

The scene: myself and two students returning a cart of laptops to the classroom after club:

  • Student A, humming “Jingle Bells”: “uggg, I don’t even know why I have this song stuck in my head!”
  • Me: “Well, it’s a good time of year to have Christmas songs stuck in your head!”
  • A: “Except I celebrate Hanukkah, so it’s a little awkward”
  • Me: “You can just get some Hanukkah songs stuck in your head instead!”
  • Student B: “Are there even Hanukkah songs?”
  • A: “Yeah, there are.. like…”
  • A starts singing “I have a little dreidel”, I join in
  • We finish the first bit of the song, return the cart, and the students go off to start school

In just these few minutes, some amazing learning was able to happen –

  • I was able to connect with a student in a way outside of lesson plans. Students’ faces light right up when you can talk (or sing!) with them about their life outside of your lesson plans, and they will transfer that connection back to your classes.
  • I have an opportunity to deepen this connection in the future, simply by recalling it and wishing her a Happy Hanukkah before winter break.
  • The other student got to learn something about another culture/religion that she may not have otherwise, and have a personal connection to it, because she learned it directly from a peer

Those lessons and connections are hard enough to build into a curriculum when you try!

Lesson learned: always be ready to jump in and learn at a moment’s notice.