Perspectives on education: through the eyes of a female teacher

In an effort to see what it is truly like to be a woman working in the education field, the Western Carolina Journalist sat with local Smokey Mountain High School teacher Kristen Holt. This interview is a part of a multi-story project that attempts to bring to light the realities of being both a teacher and a woman in our society.

Kristen Holt went to school right here in Jackson County, NC.  She attended Smoky Mountain High School (SMHS) as a teenager herself. She went on to Western Carolina University for her undergraduate degree and received her master’s degree online at WCU after she had been teaching at SMHS  for around six years.

Photo provided by Kristen Holt

Photo provided by Kristen Holt

Holt is part of the science department at Smokey Mountain,  teaching primarily physical sciences such as chemistry and, as she adds, could also teach physics.
A decade ago she started her career in elementary education; then she went on to get her license to teach middle school; and finally, received her license in order to teach at high school. Her goal is to work towards achieving her doctorate so she would be certified to teach at the college level.

Holt said she always wanted to dedicate her life to helping others, and her own philosophy about teaching stems from this belief.

“I knew I wanted to have a career and a life of service so I wanted to be of service to others and [in high school] I wasn’t really sure if that was necessarily the medical profession or if that was going to be teaching, but I knew I wanted to serve others… And [now] I personally am here for [the] individual child so at the end of the day if I made a difference for one child, if I turned just one child around: that’s why I am here. So I think that the future of society doesn’t rest on us as a whole, I think it is up to each of us to do our own small part,” explained Holt.

WCJ recently conducted both an anonymous survey online and multiple face-to-face surveys on campus to gauge student bias towards one particular gender of teacher to the other. Holt’s responses about student bias correlated with the popular data from the survey. Though she was able to expand more on her personal experiences with students in her classroom.

“I don’t necessarily notice [a bias against female teachers in classrooms.] Being in a high school level there are definitely more male teachers on the high school level than at the elementary level. If you walk through an elementary school there might be three guys in the entire school…My husband is K9 certified and we went through [the] education program together. He was one of a very small group of male teachers going for elementary education. I don’t think that all students have an easier time respecting male teachers, I think that male teachers are hard to come by. Having a male teacher is kind of a novelty thing I think, in this area especially,” said Holt.

Holt demands the respect and attention from her students, but claims this wasn’t always the case.

“No, [I have no problems commanding respect from my students]. However at first I think definitely [I did]. I think in the beginning especially as a female teacher, it depends on what culture the child was raised in. So in this area we see a male dominated families and male dominated communities. Where we see men mostly in charge, in charge of the household, in charge of our churches and fire department, they see predominantly males in this area. So when I first got here [at SMHS], especially with the younger grades, the students treat you more like a mother than a teacher, and sometimes that means they have respect for you and other times that isn’t necessarily so,” Holt stated.

However, she believes that in time many teachers will gain confidence in their abilities to manage a class and teach their given content, but in some instances this isn’t the case.

“I think as you teach, you know being ten years in, there is a shift and you become a lot more confident in what you are teaching. You know how to manage a classroom and that just comes with prolonged teaching. In the same respect, I think men come in and they automatically get this glorified way that [the students] respond to them, but at the same time that can go backwards on them. If they don’t keep a firm grasp on the classroom, or they can’t prove to students that they know what they are talking about, that they have some sort of [legitimate] reason to be in front of a classroom that can go negatively towards them. So I think it’s kind of a balancing act…it just matters what side of the spectrum you start out on.”

Holt believes that one of the reasons why there are so many women in education is because of the history of the profession itself.

“You know in the 1940’s and 1950’s women couldn’t get jobs. They couldn’t be doctors and they couldn’t be lawyers they could basically only be homemakers. So you had some of the biggest and brightest females going into education, because [women] couldn’t be all these other things they had very few choices. Because of that, we had the smartest and brightest and most dedicated [women] go into education because it was a way that you could work, and it was very prominent in the female community for you to be a teacher. You were very well respected in that position because it was one of the higher positions for you to hold. As we phased into better gender equality, because we are better than we were in the 1940s, as that continues to progress more women are choosing different degrees, they are choosing to be lawyers they are choosing to be doctors and so your brightest and most educated women aren’t really choosing education anymore,” said Holt.

For a more detailed and in depth look at women’s history in education read Shelby LeQuire’s article on WCJ.

Holt doesn’t believe sexism is the problem in education, but more so that there are too many people who just aren’t committed to the job because teaching came as a secondary option. Lateral entry educators who know the content but they don’t necessarily know how to present it to a classroom in a way that would best benefit the students.

“I think [in order for things to improve] in general, in education we just need more people. I would love to see more women and men that choose to go into education. I think having role models for our students is really important, and teaching has been put on the back-burner,” said Holt.

Looking back at her career, Holt’s one piece of advice to her younger self would be to simply give it time.

“I would tell myself to be patient. I think so many people who go into education we expect it to be the most glorious thing from day one. We are so excited and we are so passionate about teaching that we jump off this cliff basically, and we don’t know when to pull the parachute. We don’t know when to rely on our tools and coast for a little while and we wind up burning ourselves out. I think a lot of teachers within the first 10 years go through some sort of exhaustion, some sort of depression, some sort of mental issue because teaching is hard, and it doesn’t get easier. There are people who, that even at 20 years in it’s not necessarily easier. So I think if I had to give myself advice it would be to be patient,” added Holt.