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Fairy Tales Reinforce Stereotypes about Teachers, Study Shows

Release Date:
6/3/2014 12:00 AM
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June 3, 2014

Nancy Niemi, features Nancy Niemi

WEST HAVEN, CONN. -- Students depicted in modern fairy tales spend most of their time trying to discover personal information about their teachers, and those teachers are typically white women, who are kind-hearted but not very focused on the content and substance of what they teach, according to a recently published study.

“These books reinforce some of the stereotypes about teachers that persist in our society,” says Nancy Niemi, an associate professor and head of the education department at the University of New Haven. “The images and words that the books present are likely to linger in readers’ subconscious thoughts.”

Niemi, along with Julia B. Smith and Nancy Brown of Oakland University, analyzed 74 books of children’s literature published after World War II and published their results in the Journal of Research in Education.

Their study found that teachers were either young and beautiful, or old and ugly. But sometimes, for example, in 10 of the books, teachers were portrayed as aliens or animals. Few of the teachers were male, Niemi says, and the men were who were portrayed have depth and substance with a mere few lines written about their ages or appearances. Principals, when they are mentioned at all, are all male. 

“Not surprisingly, the nature of the job of teaching is represented differently for male and female teachers,” says Niemi, a former middle school teacher who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Rochester and who studies the relationships between gender and schooling.

“Female teachers in books do not interact with subject matter, which is sad since that is what all good teachers do, regardless of their gender.”

Ironically, the animal and alien teachers in the books are depicted as using teaching methods that are better than human teachers’ methods and almost always require the students to think, a requirement presented by the books as clearly not what the students are used to doing, she said.

To view the study, go to

http://www.eeraonline.org/journal/files/v20/JRE_v20n2_Article_6_Niemi_Smith_and_Brown.pdf

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