I just started my sixth year teaching high school English. This year began with the same question as always: “How will I empower the young women in my classroom this year?”
I teach mostly sophomores, who are around 16 years old, such a delicate age for young girls, especially in a culture that routinely worries about the latest generation of boys. Teenage girls, like their male counterparts, are trying on so many different hats that, as a teacher, I’m sometimes not sure which personality I will encounter on any given day. So every year, I try to teach as much literature by women as I can, but I find it never seems to be enough.
As I reflected on my annual question, an unexpected answer came to me. I stood in front of the class, introduced myself and told them a little bit about myself: I’m married, we have a dog, I like to cook—the usual. After this, they had to fill out a form and put my name on it, so I wrote it on the board: Ms. Samsa. A hand shot up in the air.
“But I thought you were married,” the student called out.
“I am,” I responded.
“So shouldn’t you be Mrs. Samsa?”
I told the class that I didn’t change my name when I got married, and I briefly explained the difference between Miss, Ms. and Mrs. Then, I noticed a hand raised in the back of the room. It belonged to a girl who hadn’t said a word all day. I called on her and she paused for a second to search for just the right words before asking, “You have a choice to keep your name when you get married? I didn’t know that.”
At this moment, I was reminded that empowering young women in the classroom is about so much more than teaching women’s literature or teaching about famous women in history. Honestly, the majority of my students probably won’t remember the details of the literature we read in class after they graduate. What they will remember are the life lessons, the ideas that inspire and show them the many paths their lives can take. Students will remember what they can use every day and what they can use in the future. They will remember that they had an English teacher who didn’t change her name when she got married, and that’s an option they have, too.
These life lessons will not only stick with my students, but will hopefully inform a new generation of free thinkers who will forge their own paths and make their own choices. And these lessons are also important for young men to see that my husband was not angry at my decision to keep my name; in fact, he supported it wholeheartedly. This does not make him less of a man. Just the opposite.
These lessons are not part of my curriculum; rather, they make up an integral part of my classroom environment. Between the lines of the literature, I can make it known that I believe in feminism, why I believe in it and what that means. I can tell students why using “girly” or “gay” as an adjective is not the insult they think it is.
Many teachers hide their lives and their beliefs from their students to avoid undue influence. While it’s not appropriate to share absolutely everything, it is incredibly important for students to know where their teachers are coming from, and sharing this can help create a classroom environment that promotes tolerance. Many teachers are liberal thinkers in conservative communities, and while it isn’t the job of the teacher to change the students’ minds, it is their job to open them. Offering a different perspective can help do that.
My goal is to empower young women and young men, in my classes by teaching about women, sharing my views and asking them about theirs. I will encourage young women to get involved, speak up and make choices. And I will start by making them all realize that they do, in fact, have a choice.
Ashley Lauren Samsa teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago. She also does some freelance writing.