What a Single-Sex School Is Really Like

I did not consider myself to be the ideal candidate for a job at a single-sex school. After all, in seventh grade I made the conscious choice not to attend an all-female private school. I wanted my school to be co-ed, like "the real world." I wanted to interact with boys on a day-to-day basis and have them as friends, not just as dates.

When choosing a college, the same reasoning applied. So when I found myself interviewing for a job at a private girls' school last year, I wondered if I would feel comfortable teaching at the kind of school I hadn't wanted to attend as a student.

Such concerns are now distant memories. I love teaching at this school. In particular, I enjoy seeing girls participate so much in class discussions. I am a big fan of the Socratic method - asking lots of questions in class to get the students to think through the answers for themselves. And like it or not, girls seem to talk more in class in an all-female school. I often see a whole classroom of eighth-graders sharing ideas in an animated manner.

Compare this with a scene I used to face daily: a co-ed class of 10th-graders, in which many of the boys talked but it took the teacher calling on the girls to get them to participate. Even when I taught units such as "Women and Islam" or "Female infanticide in India" at the co-ed school, it was still the boys who talked the most in class.

Other observations from this past year: Discipline in my classroom is a lot easier to manage. And - just as at co-ed schools - there is usually a big stir of excitement before some important social event is held, such as a dance.

My new position has also made me more conscious of studies cited in the news on the relative value of a single-sex education. In fact, over the past month I have read of two such studies. One of them concludes that girls who attend single-sex schools do better academically in the long run than girls who attend co-ed schools. The other study states that single-sex education does not lead to higher scores for girls. Go figure.

After being involved in both environments, I understand more clearly that the best schools are those that focus on giving each student an enriching education - one that nurtures the whole student, providing opportunities and experiences that inspire creative and intellectual richness. Such schools are not determined by the gender of the students that fill them.

Education is inherently about more than grades or book-learning. It is a life experience through which young people grow and mature as individuals. Self-esteem, confidence-building, and the freedom to go out on a limb without fear of ridicule are essential. How students feel about themselves is just as important as what they learn.

Just as educators shouldn't stereotype the children they teach, my experience has taught me that society shouldn't stereotype the kind of education every child needs. For some students, co-education is the best experience. For others it is not. Over the past year I've come to appreciate the options my students have in choosing the kind of education that fits them best. I only hope students in public schools are increasingly offered such choices. They shouldn't be reserved only for those who can afford the high tuition of private school.

* Sharon Johnson-Cramer teaches seventh- and eighth-grade history at The Winsor School, a girls' school in Boston.

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