The Hardest Lesson I’ve Ever Taught

Matt McKee, Microsoft engineer and volunteer technology teacher, talks about how he thinks about and handles gender issues in the classroom. 

"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.

Matt McKee is a software engineer and volunteer teacher. By day, he works for Microsoft on projects to make developers more productive, and by early morning, he works with a team of volunteers to bring computer science education to students in middle and high school. He is passionate about improving K-12 technology education, particularly to increase diversity and broaden access.

Other posts by him can be found on mwmckee.com, and you can reach out to him on twitter @try_rebooting