Interview with Amana Mattos
February 7, 2014
Assistant Professor for the Psychology Department at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj), Amana Mattos focuses her research in development psychology and political psychology, specifically on issues related to youth and adolescence, freedom, feminist theory and political subjectivity.
In this interview, originally published at the Gender Equality in Schools Portal, Mattos reflects on the prospects and challenges for schools teaching care and gender issues. She also discusses the changes that new technologies will bring to the educational system.
1) Consider teacher-training programs. How important is it for them to address gender issues?
A teacher, male or female, is responsible for transferring both content and values to pupils in school. Therefore, their personal views and attitudes towards gender have a great impact on those of children and youth. When we think about “gender concerns” in schools nowadays, it is common to visualize homophobia and transphobia, which are serious problems. But it goes beyond that. Teachers reproduce on a daily basis gender stereotypes and sexist behaviors during their exchanges with students. Sometimes without even noticing. It is common to see teachers telling children that “girls should not behave like that,” “boys have to be strong, play football,” or “boys don’t cry.” These are clichés reproduced inside the classrooms or in the schoolyards, and they contribute directly to the shaping of boys’ and girls’ behaviors, as well as of their relationships with each other.
Teachers’ courses usually fail to offer a critical perspective about gender and sexuality. When this topic is approached, it is usually through conservative theories of development psychology, which naturalize sexual differences in socialization processes. This approach does not provide teachers with tools to discuss issues such as intolerance towards others, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in school and society. It is necessary to bring these topics to teacher training sessions and university programs and provide opportunities for ongoing training. It is hard work to deconstruct deeply rooted ideas.
2) You conduct research on emergent practices in the contemporary school system in Brazil. Can you tell us about the idea to use the ethics of care as an alternative to the traditional knowledge transfer between teachers/students?
It is important to underline that my take on ethics of care is completely inserted inside the field of feminist theory. I say this because I have been witnessing a growing interest in the term care in the health field (including psychology) as well as the legal field, but without really problematizing the act of caring. For example, a lot of people talk about teachers or caregiving professionals without specifically mentioning that these jobs – associated with care- are traditionally female jobs. The term care is used, in Portuguese, in the masculine form, but in reality we see female teachers, female psychologists, female social workers, female nurses, and so forth. The invisibility of women in these positions results in the exclusion of important characteristics of the act of caring. For example, it is part of caring to handle someone else’s body, with various intensities. This is very clear during early childhood education – the female teacher has a proximity to the children’s bodies, which is often mistaken with the role of motherhood. Why is this invisible? If we take a closer at the association between women and care, we can problematize it intellectually. Why are there few male teachers in childhood education? Why does society insist to claim that men should not take care of vulnerable people’s bodies (children, ill people, and elderly)? If we ask these questions, perhaps we can reflect upon the fact that society bans certain toys from boys, such as dolls, kitchen appliances and other toys associated with the domestic universe.
But going back to your question, I have been thinking about how school is devaluing care relations between teachers and students by valuing almost exclusively the so-called “knowledge transfer.” But in reality, care is essential for children and youth to learn in school. If we discuss this more often in schools, maybe we will be able to find ways to value school experiences that are not assessed or graded by exams, but that are an integral part of the people who graduate every year. Also, we will be able to discuss more openly the myriad of gender issues that cross-cut learning and teaching experiences.
3) How should schools address the emergence of new (interactive) technologies, which are giving children and youth more independence from teachers?
It is important to realize that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) will become problematic since schools typically establish in advance what students will learn, know and master. ICTs will become a problem since children and youth are able to access information quickly, including content that teachers would rather deliver pedagogically and explain in homeopathic doses.
Society needs to acknowledge that new generations will be better equipped to dominate new gadgets than their teachers are.
Meanwhile, teachers need to use this ability to their advantage, engaging students in activities that demand such skills throughout the course. In addition, I think that our immersion in images – in advertising, newspaper and online media, and consumption goods – constitutes an important debate opportunity for teachers and students. It is essential to interpret such images and work on the ideas behind them.
Of course all these activities require some preparation on behalf of teachers, and the exchange of ideas with experienced colleagues that have already practiced and debated them. There is plenty more to be done in schools in order to encourage this type of work, but, despite that, there are many professionals already invested in this type of activities.
4) How can the act of perceiving students as agents – that can decide what they want from schools – benefit educational practices?
Schools in Brazil are characterized by a hierarchy between those who are more knowledgeable and experienced, and those who are less knowledgeable and experienced. When we think of public school we need to consider class and race as part of this hierarchy. The reality leaves little room for negotiating or questioning these positions.
What I have been observing is that such a rank is so unwavering that it jeopardizes the role of schools as spaces of knowledge transfer and intergenerational dialogue. When teachers are not open to dialogue – given that dialogue entails the possibility of questioning these positions – tensions rise and sometimes confrontations emerge. Students who do not want to attend classes stay in the yards, or go into the classroom and disrespect teachers, while teachers abuse authority, humiliate students or simply “give up” teaching, showing no dedication to school activities.
Unquestionably, children and youth can contribute to the teaching process. This does not mean that older generations should not guide younger ones on what it is important to learn and get to know. But it is key to remember that students go into schools already equipped with knowledge, references, and ideas that need to be used in the learning process. A lot of the information and knowledge that teachers learned in schools is out-of-date or expired, but learning to think is a constant. I believe education professionals need to reinvent – daily – ways of engaging with these other forms of knowledge.
I know that the public school system in Brazil is a highly complex matter, but what has caught my attention is the authoritarian stance adopted by some teachers and how that upsets students. This stance mimics the same one adopted by government officials regarding public policies in education. The current government has, on many occasions, disrespected teachers and the frequent strikes make that perfectly clear. The government’s authoritarian structure does not contribute at all to the improvement of education, and yet it is often reproduced inside the classroom.
5) Do schools that perceive care and dialogue between teachers and students as a learning practice contribute to gender norms transformation?
Yes, because when schools perceive care as part of learning and teaching, certain activities gain value. Such an understanding is complicated, especially when we look all around us and everything seems to suggest that care should not be valued: kindergarten teachers earn considerably less than middle school teachers; professionals (mostly women) in charge of taking care of school spaces – cleaners, cookers – earn less than teachers; parent-teacher meetings, which have everything to do with care, are usually aimed at mothers (because they assume that fathers have “more important things to do”). Thus, I believe that valuing care practices – including economically – contributes to breaking gender stereotypes that not only dictate the roles of men and women in our society but also, and more importantly, establish a hierarchy between those two roles.
It is also important to think about which types of individuals schools have been trying to shape. Do girls who are interested in clothes, games and subjects traditionally associated with boys have a place in school? What about boys who are interested in things associated with girls? Are transgender children and adolescents welcomed in schools? Many studies and statistics have shown that that is not the case. Schools remain an institution that reproduces the gender binary, a conservative binary, which fails to encompass the myriad of possibilities for gender performance and reinvention. At the same time, schools are also the place where children and adolescents spend most of their time and where they learn and exchange ideas. I think that new practices should be encouraged and in the end, they will point to new directions and paths for the future of education. It has been a very stimulating challenge.