I dropped my end of the heavy battery. Daddy and I needed to “jump off” or start up the irrigation system. I was perhaps eight and my sister and Mom were somewhere else. Dad was a hard working farmer and he needed my help on this dusty, dry night. I was not feeling up to the task. I had to carry my end, and he would carry his (although admittedly, he was lowering his end so he'd shoulder more of the load.) But I dropped it. I recall that it wasn't that it was too heavy, but carrying that battery was hard and I wanted someone else to do it instead of me.
Not Just a Girl
“It is too heavy for me Dad, I'm just a girl.” I whimpered as dust swirled around my end of the battery.
Dad dropped his side with a thud to match my side already resting on the ground. He looked at me across the now still battery on the dry south Georgia dirt. As some of the dust cleared, I could see Dad's blue eyes looking at me intently from his sun-burned face.
“Don't you ever say that again, Vicki. You can do anything you choose to do. I'd take you over any boy and you live your life like you can do anything because you can. Now pick up your end and let's get this job done. I'll never hear ‘just a girl' again because you are my daughter and you can do anything.”
I never have forgotten that moment. As I struggled in a mostly male college, even when male students would throw the ‘just a girl' at me. I'd throw an “I can do anything” right back at them and come out ahead. The “just a girl” phrase never held water and in fact, supercharged my fury if someone dare use it on me to try to hold me back.
[callout]This blog post is in response to Cathy Rubin‘s question of the month: What are the best examples you have seen of teachers closing the gender gap in education? Perhaps this is not the answer expected, but it rings true from my experience. [/callout]
An exceptional man, my Dad raised us to know we could do anything, and we have. While I won't go into my accomplishments, one of my sisters is a successful alligator farmer, and the other one is an award winning online professor. We all own businesses. We all live in any world we choose – male, female, mixed. It is irrelevant to us whether the field is considered a “male” or “female” one because we don't care.
Our world is the world and we will contribute where we're supposed to work. We three sisters are just people doing hard work worth doing.
Just a Girl in the Classroom
Recently, Ben Owens, a physics teacher in the Appalachian mountains, told his story of a project-based physics class. Last fall, he had seven girls win their level of competition in their local “punkin' chunkin'” competition by building a full-sized trebuchet. Their parents helped them.
One man even taught his daughter to weld and was out there welding late into the night with her. As an aside, Ben had two boys enter – but it was the girls who won. The girls were encouraged by their parents but in the end; they did it on their own.
I asked him what he did to get so many girls interested, and he wasn't aware that he taught the girls any differently.
“They wanted to be left alone, and so I let them do it.”
I first met Pat Yongpradit in South Africa as he presented his after school coding club for girls. He had excellent results. Vinnie Vrotney teaches girls STEAM in middle school. And certainly all of these are excellent programs both which have “just girls” in the classes.
But I would think that these girls had parents who encouraged them to either go to a girls-only school or join an after-school girls club for computer science. It was OK for their girls to do something that interested them, even if it was different from what many expected of them because they were “just girls.”
They obviously had parents and teachers who saw them as human beings interested in coding and STEAM topics and let them do it. And when I meet these amazing women who didn't have a strong parent who encouraged them, they have always had a teacher or professional mentor that helped them see that they can do anything.
Girl Power Starts at Home
My goal as a teacherpreneur and teacher is to notice the strengths of my students and share those with parents. And there is a profound difference in how I've seen the parents of boys and girls respond.
Recently, I had a bright young lady in my classroom who made a killer Scratch game. She did some tough things that no one had figured out to do but her. She has a natural gift of programming code. I told her parents, and they are excited but I am not sure they know what to do with it. Can girls program computers? We don't have many examples around here.
Computer Science often does not move high on a girl's list of potential careers without an open minded parent.
When I tell young boys and their parents about a potential gift in Computer Science, it always moves up high on their list as a possible career. Every single time. Why?
A few times in the past, I've even been corrected by the parents of girls and told “we thought she'd make a great nurse” or “she might be interested in teaching.” Not that there is anything wrong with any of those professions (I'm a teacher, after all).
But in the end, I've noticed that as a teacher, I can point out strengths, but it is often an observant teacher coupled with an open minded parent that makes a huge difference in the path girls choose.
It isn't about forcing her down a path, but letting her see as many options as possible that makes the difference in the end.
For what we need is every child – girl or boy – achieving their full potential. We want them to bring their best self to the world and contribute in only a way that they can contribute.
5 Ways You Can Help Girls Achieve Their Best Potential
1. Help Girls See Themselves as a Person First.
The parents who insist that their girls see themselves first as a person — that view makes a difference.
2. Be Open Minded About Careers and Interests Girls Pursue
Parents who are open minded about helping their daughter pursue her interests whatever they are (or aren't).
3. Encourage Girls By Helping Them Learn Things That Interest Them
I love the father teaching his daughter to weld. When I asked to program computers, my parents gave me access to the family TRS-80. When I wanted to throw a football, Dad bought one and taught me how (even if I chipped my tooth in the process.) I know an amazing young lady who is tearing up the shotgun competition circuit and others who show hogs or barrel race. These no-limits parents will reap the rewards when their daughters tackle whatever comes to mind.
4. Watch The Language You Use
Perhaps the best thing Dad did was not letting me use “I'm just a girl” as an excuse as he worked alongside me in a dusty field to fix an irrigation system.
My favorite college professor, Dr. Phil Adler, often talked about sexism and racism and how to deal with it in the world.
“Be so good they can't ignore you. The world cannot afford to ignore great talent. Yes, you'll have to work hard, but do not limit yourself by your thinking. A person can not overcome the barriers of their own mind.”
He also encouraged us to look for organizations and places that promoted a diversity of talent because those organizations would be more successful.
5. Expose them intentionally to non-traditional fields.
The parents who have their girls in programming or robotics clubs or, for that matter, take their daughter to work on the farm with them — are sending a message of open-mindedness to their girls. The fact that I even have to point this out troubles me, but it is the truth.
Girls can do anything but not if we only expose them to some things.
A large part of the responsibility lies with adults. As humans, sometimes we don't know what we don't know and when we're not exposed to something, we don't know we can do it.
The World Needs Everyone to Contribute: Girls and Boys
The world needs every person to achieve their best. But to do that, we cannot limit girls or boys with preconceived notions about what they “should” be and get busy helping them explore what they “could” be.
As for me, having a Dad and a Mom who had no limits for me made all the difference.
Girls are people — people we need to reach their full potential so the world can reach its.
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