How to Be a Powerful Princess

Preschool teaching assistants in Tel Aviv have been learning how to challenge the gender stereotypes that continue to pervade the nursery classroom.

Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem

Kochi Aharon, a preschool teaching assistant in Tel Aviv's Maoz Aviv neighborhood, recently approached the main class teacher and proposed that two girls in the class preside over its weekly, Friday ceremony to welcome in Shabbat. The ceremony is traditionally conducted by a girl and a boy, playing the roles of mother and father, but Aharon made her groundbreaking proposal following a workshop on gender equality in preschool education held this year for nursery-school teaching assistants in the Tel Aviv area.

"I went up to the main teacher and said, 'There are more girls than boys in this class so why don't we use two girls?'" she recalls, smiling. She knew this practical argument wasn't the main issue. She was treading on extremely sensitive ground, but hoped that her suggestion might at least stir some discussion.

A nursery in Tel Aviv’s Maoz Aviv neighborhood. 'Sexual equality starts in preschools,' says group facilitator Taguri-Moshe.Credit: David Bachar

In the end the traditional formula remained unchanged. "There are some things we grow up with and can't be changed. You can't bring down walls in one day," says Aharon, 43, a mother of two, who worked as the main teacher of a preschool class in the past. But she believes her proposal will eventually be followed, with increasing awareness of gender issues. "At first everyone says 'we can't change things,'" she adds.

As a result of the workshop, however, Aharon did manage to change one fundamental aspect of the preschool class. "I proposed to the teacher that we open up the dolls corner and put some building blocks in it, and she agreed," Aharon says. She explains that the move sent out a signal to boys that it is legitimate to play with dolls, ensuring they won't feel embarrassed now they don't have to enter a closed-off area that projects the message of "girls only." The change will also encourage "girls to come and play with the building blocks," says Aharon, who has also introduced books with gender-balanced content into the classroom.

The gender sensitivity workshop was sponsored by Tel Aviv city council member Tamar Zandberg, in collaboration with the Education Ministry. Between October and January, 30 teaching assistants who work with preschoolers aged between 3 and 5 took part in a 10-session workshop. During the biweekly meetings, participants analyzed daily occurrences in preschool classes, focused on problematic gender issues, and routines that potentially inculcate stereotypes.

"The course was based on the assumption that behavioral roles assumed by the educational staff, particularly in preschool settings, exert an influence" on children, explains Zandberg.

"Two years ago my daughter returned home from nursery school singing a tune that teaches the Hebrew names of the fingers," she adds. "In the song the thumb is the father, the head of the family. The index finger is the mother, who 'calls for a meal.' The other fingers are children. The pinky is the baby. I didn't want to complain to the teacher because it was clear the song was taught without a conscious agenda, without a deliberate intention to disseminate a chauvinist message.

"We didn't establish the workshop to point out what isn't right in existing preschools," Zandberg adds. "Instead, we wanted to present interesting, thought-provoking materials. The teaching assistants were exposed to issues that are important to them as women."

Orna Avidan, director of the Tel Aviv municipality's preschool division, points out that classroom assistants are educational figures, exactly like the main teachers. "They actually spend more time with the children during activities such as setting up the table for meals. When the table is being set, should the assistant call on boys or girls to help? That's the sort of question [the workshop addressed]."

'Most of us have been guilty'

"When you first hear about a course on gender equality it sound a little intimidating," Aharon candidly admits. "At first we looked at the description of the workshop and wondered, 'What are those feminists trying to do?' But slowly you open up to the idea. You see that this isn't a threatening monster." She says that working with other assistants in a group helped allay anxieties. "We heard the stories told by some of the participants and that helped us open up," she says. "It made it easier for us to accept the idea of changing some routines.

"Most of us have been guilty of [reinforcing stereotypes]," Aharon adds. "As a matter of principle of course I believe in equality. But there were things I never paid attention to. Sometimes you work like a robot. During the workshop we discussed what we do and what happens in the preschool. For instance, the use of blue and pink in birthday presents. Why, as a matter of fact, do we need to do things this way? One day I had a talk with the preschoolers in the class. I asked them about colors they like. One boy said, 'Red.' The others accosted him, saying, 'What are you, a girl?'"

A major change was made in the nursery class during the Hanukkah celebrations, when roles were assigned for the holiday party. "I wondered why boys had to be the warriors and girls had to deal with the jugs [of oil]," Aharon recalls. "So then we allocated roles without segregating certain roles for boys and others for girls.

"The moment adults change their approach you can see how it affects children," Aharon adds. "I put an item in the kitchen that was considered a 'boy's toy.' That encourages boys to come to the kitchen area, to stand in it and try to cook. When they ask, 'What should I prepare for you?' you respond naturally, and that helps change realities. You show them that this is all natural."

Aharon says that the preschool's location in a relatively open-minded neighborhood has helped her install changes. Adi Shaulov, a teaching assistant at a preschool class in Jaffa, also says parents have cooperated with new ideas that she has put forward. Her proposals, she explains, "are not drastic." Thanks to the workshop, she adds, "we received the tools we need to see how things can be changed and to know what we can do. For instance if a boy wants to wear a dress that's all right. And a girl can help move a bench. Everything depends on what attitudes you project to children. If a boy chooses pink he used to be told, 'Oh no,' whereas today his preference is reinforced positively. Conversely if a girl wants to wear a Power Rangers costume I'll encourage her to think of this as being legitimate."

Shaulov says she encourages girls to play in all parts of the classroom, and not just in the dolls area. She says that such diversity in nursery activities is "important to a child's development, to his or her self-image. It's important not to reinforce stigmas but rather to [allow the child to] experience a variety of things."

Thanks to the workshop, she concludes, "I read stories differently to children today. I pay attention to the colors boys use when they paint, I am aware of the stories you can tell and the messages they deliver."

How does it feel to be a truck driver?

Galit Taguri-Moshe, who works professionally as a group facilitator, initiated the workshop for gender awareness in preschool education. The impetus for her involvement in this project came during a Hanukkah party at her daughter's nursery class, as she watched the boys working to move benches as the girls sat down and started to draw. "When I proposed that my daughter help out with the work the teacher said, 'The poor girl, let her rest. She'll work really hard in her life,'" Taguri-Moshe says. "This wasn't an old, conservative preschool teacher but rather one in her 30s - a young, lively woman. I said to myself something had to be done."

Taguri-Moshe contacted Zandberg. Dr. Hagit Gur-Ziv, a lecturer in critical education theory at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College, Tel Aviv, also led sessions during the workshop. "We are all affected by stereotypes," says Taguri-Moshe. "The point is to realize how pervasive stereotypical thinking really is and to examine its impact. That's what we did during the workshop. We talked about things in a direct, straightforward way, knowing that in the end the teaching assistants are the ones who have to implement changes."

Some workshop sessions dealt with drama education. "Not just the roles given to boys and girls in a play but also where boys and girls are positioned physically in a theater and on the stage," says Taguri-Moshe. "The teaching assistants took part in role-playing exercises. For instance, they experience what it's like to play 'male' roles. How it feels to be a truck driver, for example. How that affected the way they felt."

The workshop also addressed gender attitudes in texts and stories, helping the teaching assistants to initiate discussions with preschoolers about stereotypes in stories. "For instance," Taguri-Moshe explains, "there is a book in which a man is pictured as an executive who wears a respectable suit and tie, whereas the mother wears old rags, a kind of pajama outfit, as though she's in the middle of cleaning. Why is that? After all, we know that women can be managers.

"Mothers [in children's stories] tend to be beautiful, but not very smart," she adds. "A beautiful princess eats a poisoned apple, even though she knows it's poisoned. Sometimes the message is that if the woman is strong she's monstrous and bad. There's no positive message about female assertiveness. When there's an image of an angry mother, the anger is cast as a bad trait, as a reflection of cruelty. Our right to be angry is taken from us."

The little things

Taguri-Moshe says she receives responses and updates almost every day from workshop participants. "Mostly they relate to the sort of little things that change reality," she says.

Taguri-Moshe cites research studies that probe the use of playground space by boys and girls. Boys gobble up play areas twice the size of those used by girls, research indicates. "Soccer, tag and other games boys play use more space than areas used by girls, who tend not to sprawl and who play in small spaces," she says. "For most preschool teachers the fact that boys appropriate larger play areas is taken as self-evident and this explains why, when I meet with women office workers, many of them are positioned in offices smaller than ones used by males with comparable roles. The message is always sent to females, 'Don't fight over territory.'"

Taguri-Moshe sums up her philosophy: "In my view, promoting equality between the sexes starts in preschools. We can develop a sense of security and assertiveness among girls. Conversely, boys can be encouraged to express their feelings. When a boy cries the message is often, 'Hold it in, bite your lip.' That's not a healthy message."

Additional workshops are to be conducted next year, and will involve main teachers from preschool classes, in addition to assistants. The goal is for all nursery educators in the Tel Aviv area to take part in such a workshop, Zandberg explains.

Taguri-Moshe adds that mayors from other cities have also shown interest in the workshop. Some sessions next year, she says, will relate to same-sex couples, nontraditional family arrangements and related topics.

"We took the workshop seriously, and we profited from it," Aharon says. "In my own home I've been making sure that our son helps to clean, and that our daughter isn't left alone to clean. The workshop increased my awareness. Girls are still going to want to play as princesses, but I will talk to them, encourage them to be princesses who act as leaders and who are assertive. I focus on the issue of self-esteem, on how important it is to feel that you have something to give beyond your own physical beauty."