Schools have long imposed gendered performances and reproduced patriarchal discourses (Kelly & Nihlen, 2017), reinforcing a system of deep inequality, thus, “limiting our children’s capabilities to be fully human” (Richardson, 2015, p. 3). It is imperative that schools include feminist voices to actualize education as sympoiesis towards a socially just society. In order for schools to function as “a site of new ideas, social reorganization, and social mobility” (Richardson, 2015, p. 25), educators have made efforts to bring feminist perspectives to the curriculum and problematize patriarchal discourses through feminist pedagogy (e.g., Gallagher, 2000; Ollis, 2017; Vickery, 2016; Wagner, 2014). While it is important to acknowledge how educators successfully incorporate feminist perspectives into school settings, it is also important to address what challenges teachers face in real-life teaching (Hook, 2019; McKnight, 2018). We found that the limited extant literature shared challenging incidents in the context of higher education (e.g., McCusker, 2017; Hook, 2019), but not so much in K-12 settings.
In the proposed study, we explore how three Korean female elementary school teachers who identify themselves as feminist navigate, negotiate, and secure their positionality as feminist teachers against the dominant school discourses that depoliticize curriculum and pedagogy. More specifically, we ask:
1) What dominant discourses do female teachers encounter in schools when they attempt to bring feminist perspectives to the schools?
2) How do the dominant school discourses affect the way in which female teachers develop their (feminist) teacher identity?
3) How do the female teachers negotiate their positionality as feminist teachers against the dominant school discourses?
Data collection methods include interviews, artifacts (books and blog posts that the teachers have written), and observations from the teachers’ triweekly meetings. Our analysis draws on feminist post-structural understandings of discourse, power relations, and agency.
Our findings show that apolitical and patriarchal discourses were present at the school which constrained the teachers’ agency to enact feminist pedagogy. Incorporating feminist perspectives in the K-5 curriculum and pedagogy seemed to be an arduous process that required strong commitment and strategic agency from the teachers. It involved complicated, on-going negotiation processes and repositioning of feminist teacher identity due to the stratified school culture that favored supposedly apolitical, but in fact, patriarchal curriculum and pedagogy; it was far from a simple equation such as one wherein feminist beliefs transfer directly into feminist practices. However, the teachers from the study negotiated and solidified their positionality as feminist teachers and strategically infused feminist perspectives into and beyond the school context despite multiple constraints and backlash. This resulted in expanding the boundaries of knowledge and the practices socially permitted in school, i.e., what had been traditionally an apolitical and patriarchal curriculum and pedagogy. We discuss the dominant school discourses that constrained teacher agency, particularly when the teachers attempted to disrupt the unjust status quo. We also draw from the findings strategies for enacting feminist pedagogy. We conclude that there should be more studies on both the challenges and accomplishments of teachers who attempt to realize sympoiesis at schools by bringing feminist perspectives to K-12 classrooms.
Yeonghwi Ryu and Hyeyoung Ghim are both doctoral students in the Curriculum and Teaching Department of the Teachers College at Columbia University.