From Fluffy to Firm, and Back

By Juliette de Wolfe*

For several years before entering the PhD program in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, I worked in an elementary school as a special education teacher.  I’ve often since referred to this as the “fluffy” world I lived in.   We started sentences with “I’m sorry, but…,” “I don’t know if this makes any sense, but…,” and “Tell me if I’m wrong, but…”, and I say “we” because I did it too.  As a woman, working in a profession dominated by women, communication was indirect, hesitant, and even nervous.  I had become accustomed to this and had a rude awakening when I began my doctoral studies.

I realized about two weeks into the two-year long colloquium at Teachers College that no one in the room cared about what I felt.  They were interested in what I thought, and how I came upon that thought, and what evidence I could use to back it up.  I would take the N train back to my tiny apartment in Queens, NY each Thursday evening after class had finished, licking my wounds and thinking about how nasty, cold, and un-fluffy the experience had been.  There is no feeling in that room, I thought – just stone-cold performance and judgment.  But as we all must in our lives, I adapted.  I began to understand the dance, and to even tap along to the beat once in a while.  By the end of the second semester I was less shy in colloquium and enjoyed the conversations for the lingering stimulation they provided.  On my subway rides home, I eventually spent less time licking wounds, and more time thinking about what my fellow students had presented, and how they had challenged my ideas.

The big break-through for me came in my second year of colloquium.  A male student was presenting his plans for summer fieldwork and I saw major gaps in his methodology.  It seemed as though the day-to-day activities of his fieldwork had not yet been thought through, and I found this extremely problematic.  I raised my hand to ask him, in essence, what he actually planned to do in the field everyday.  As I formulated my question though, I felt my own hesitancy.  My words were flip floppy, and I said things such as “I’m sure you’ve already figured this out, but…,” and “I’m sure it’ll be great, but…,” when it fact I meant the exact opposite.  I meant, “I don’t think you have figured this out at all.  I think you need to come up with a better plan.  And at this point, I don’t think it’ll be great.  I think it’ll be a disaster.”  After I finished stammering through my weak interrogation, a female professor seated next to me, leaned over and told me never to apologize for my questions.  She said that as women we tend to do this, but we shouldn’t.  We have every right to ask assertive questions and demand answers.  I think about that advice often.

Three years later, and with a PhD in hand, I’ve returned to the “fluffy” world.  I’m back in an elementary school setting where (generally) women sit in meetings and still apologize for their questions, their answers, their space in the room.  But I don’t do this anymore, and it makes me stand out.  Just a few weeks ago I was in an English/Language Arts (ELA) planning meeting, where we were discussing quarterly standards.  I posed a question regarding measurement of one of the standards to the ELA coach.  She responded by talking around my question for several minutes floundering through her answer.  This is a smart woman who knows the ELA standards inside and out, but her answer did not reflect her knowledge.  As she wrapped up her answer, her volume began to peter out and she repeated a couple of her points unnecessarily.  She then ended by saying, “I’m not sure I’ve answered your question, but…” and trailed off.  I responded simply, “No, you have not answered it, but I’d be happy to repeat my question.”  She blushed and the attention of the other teachers seated in little tiny chairs around the kidney bean shaped table volleyed back and forth between the coach and me.  This time, I rephrased the question, asking for a yes or no answer, followed by an example of how we would or would not effectively assess said standard.  The coach provided a clear and thoughtful answer, and the conversation moved on to the next item of business.  In that moment though, I realized that the firmness I tried so hard to develop in my PhD program was not practiced in this new space, and perhaps was not even welcome.

I now walk a fine line between demanding real answers to my real questions, and fitting in with the otherwise “fluffy” talk that permeates the culture of elementary school communication.  I doubt I will ever be able to fully return to that place of hesitancy where I was ashamed of my ideas and my space in the room, and yet I also need to be respectful of my colleagues’ feelings and ways of expressing themselves.  Moving forward, I hope that I’m able to provide to my colleagues the professional instruction and personal kindness that my professor showed me that day in colloquium.  I recognize that my colleagues may continue to apologize for their thoughts and ideas, but I see a profound value in reassuring them that there is no need to shirk away from their comments, and that this does our important work as educators no good.  And that is something for which I will never apologize.

*Juliette de Wolfe is a graduate of the PhD programs in Anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University.