A friend recently told me about her son, who graduated from our local high school a year or two ago. He had struggled throughout his school experience. He didn’t apply to college, but his mother hopes that he might eventually enroll in a vocational or technical program and learn a trade that he might enjoy. His school experience was so negative, though, that he’s reluctant to sign up for any more of it.
A few days later, another friend told me how concerned she was about her grandson, a high schooler here. He, too, had always struggled with school, even though he was a smart kid. He had had enough behavioral problems that he had been medicated for a large part of his childhood. His family finally decided that the medication was making him miserable – it was “killing him,” his grandmother said – and insisted that he be taken off it. Now he was trying to adjust to high school. He had found a subject that he liked – Chemistry – and she hoped that he might finally get some enjoyment from school. When she talked about the behavior problems he had experienced, we joked that there was a scientific name for it: it’s called “being a boy.”
I think of what it must be like to be a boy at my kids’ school. Of the sixteen classroom teachers at the school, one is male. The remaining fifteen are women, as are the principal, the office staff, the guidance counselor, the nurse, the gym teacher, the music teacher, the art teachers, the lunchroom staff, and the recess attendants. One of the special ed classrooms has a male teacher, and there is a male custodian that the kids seem to like.
I’m certainly not suggesting that you need to be male to teach boys, or that men are better teachers than women. Many of the school’s teachers are great at what they do, and the kids – both boys and girls – respond well to them. But kids are very aware of gender, and the virtual absence of men at the school must have an effect on them. It doesn’t help that the school’s administration has decided to ratchet up its emphasis on behavior and discipline. To any boy who has trouble meeting “expectations,” school must seem like the place where you go to have women lecture and scold you about your behavior and tell you to sit still and be quiet. What does that do to a kid’s self-concept? What does it do to his attitude toward women?
(And what does this atmosphere do to the girls’ conceptions of gender? The qualities most rewarded by the school – docility, obedience, quietness – are the very qualities that have served girls in particular so poorly. The “problem kids” are punished for not learning those qualities, and the “well-behaved” kids are punished by learning them.)
Shouldn’t the school at least reflect on this gender disparity, even if it can’t change it? If the school’s “expectations” are hurting, rather than helping, a significant number of kids, shouldn’t they be reexamined? Is it possible that the absence of male staff has an effect on how the school conceives of what is age-appropriate behavior? Does a group of women reach the same conclusions about what’s “appropriate” behavior as a group of men would?
Boys need role models – not just to show them what good behavior is, but to show them how good behavior can be consistent with masculinity. Who wouldn’t trade a thousand lectures on bullying for one instance of a respected male teacher treating a socially marginal kid as one of the guys, or de-escalating a conflict without losing face, or challenging a racial or homophobic slur? Not every male teacher could do that effectively; but even the best female teacher cannot model compassionate, kind, intelligent masculinity.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for a boy to be kind, or book-smart, or respectful of women, or tolerant toward people who are different, and still be accepted by his male peers. Boys need some examples to see how it can be done. Instead, at our school, they get lectures and behavior prizes and law-enforcement-style disciplinary practices. None of it addresses their need. If they have to choose between being good and being boys, I know what they’ll choose – even if it means deciding that they’re not cut out for school.