Teachers as Agents of social change: Lessons from a Teacher-led Gender Sensitization Program

When you hear the word teacher, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Well, my mind immediately conjures up images of saree-clad women brandishing a wooden ruler in a frightful manner, subject-specific classroom instructions, experiments, examinations and results, and of course, memories of some of the teachers who have helped me beyond academics! Another memory that has always stuck with me is that of a respected lady professor warning us (an all girls’ class) that if we didn’t do well in college and land decent well-paying positions, we might have to give up our careers altogether because our mother-in-law wouldn’t look after our kids for just INR 20,000-30,000! Every time I remember this incident, I’m baffled by how a gender stereotype was used by a professor to encourage young girls to study and the kind of influence such a statement would have had on impressionable minds. This incident always reminds me of the fact that teachers do more than teach; they shape our attitudes and beliefs, which we take with us into our adulthood. This is especially true for the gender norms we learn at a young age and internalize as we grow older.

It is no surprise that such instances of casually promoting gender bias are a common occurrence in academic institutions across India. Fortunately, many social impact organizations have recognized the prevailing gender inequities in the society, not just amongst the teachers, but also in the wider community and are employing creative strategies to challenge inequitable gender norms. Many of these gender transformative programs are geared towards adolescents and hence schools are utilized to enable this change.

When it comes to achieving social change through schools, teachers play a critical role. The program implementers prepare teachers to address these challenges with students and bring about change in the students’ thinking. One such program was evaluated and audited by Development Solutions. This program used participatory exercises to change teachers’ perceptions of gender roles, gender norms, masculinity, and gender-based violence and to prepare them to speak to students about these topics. We learned during our field visits that the program impacted the attitudes and behaviours of male teachers who began helping their wives with household chores, some school Principals had inculcated gender-neutral behaviour in school and at home, and anecdotal evidence indicated that young boys showed a positive shift in how they viewed the social responsibilities of the other gender. This and numerous other school-based programs demonstrate how involving teachers in such programs not only improves their perspectives but also influences the wider school and society’s way of thinking.

As a result, the role of teachers has changed from one of only imparting knowledge about a certain subject to one of actively influencing students’ social behaviour. Teachers have consequently become important social change agents in both schools and society at large.

However noble the endeavour, it can be more difficult than we believe for teachers to bring about this change. Our field research showed that:

  • Teachers frequently encountered resistance from the community when challenging deeply rooted social evils;
  • They were overburdened with schoolwork, making it challenging for them to concentrate on the program; and
  • Some needed more support in transacting social programs.

How therefore can we assist our teachers in making this self-transformation and prepare them for it? It is crucial for program implementers to ensure that teachers are well-equipped to administer such programs effectively in their classrooms, both in terms of improved perspectives and teaching abilities as well as a supportive school environment. Program implementers should thus ensure:

  • that teachers and other school-level stakeholders support the program;
  • teachers’ participation in other school activities is taken into account when planning their program engagement; and
  • thorough training and handholding support is provided to the teachers.

Learning about these programs gives me hope that there is a chance that not only will such statements not be made in future, but that teachers will now support in challenging patriarchal ideas and practices and lead to a positive change amongst generations to come.

Do you know of any other ways in which teachers are shaping social change? Please tell us about these; we’d be delighted to hear about them!

People: Aastha Arora, Project Manager at Development Solutions


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