Friday, January 13, 2012

If only these boys could be more like girls

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.


KD said...

This is a great post. I'll probably comment more later, but I think the general subject of your post definitely needs more exploration by educators.

There is someone who writes about the experiences/needs of boys in the educational system, but right now his name escapes me...maybe another reader knows what I'm talking about.

I'm a mom of a boy. I'll be honest before having a son of my own I probably really didn't give much thought as to how the experiences of a boy might be different than those of a girl, especially in the school system.

I think this can be a hard topic to talk about, without feeling as if one is stereotyping boys vs. girls.

honu-girl said...

As a parent of a boy and a girl, this resonates.

G loves school. She thrives with the expectations of her (all women) teachers. When she acts up, it's in an "accepted" way. She gets rewarded for her good behavior, and responds well to it. She doesn't behave well to get rewarded, but rather because she wants to please her teachers.

K doesn't like school. Part of that is that K acts like a boy, and often then gets in trouble. Even his teachers recognize he's not a "bad" kid, he just functions differently. This year, with a male teacher, in general he's done much better. (Although I must give his current school credit - it is MUCH more accepting of his different behavior than his kindergarten school.) K doesn't respond well to a rewards-system, either - he will want to be rewarded because he's been good (for something that should just be expected) and cries foul when he is not rewarded or when rewards are applied unfairly.

I don't know what the solution is. But one-size-fits-all education is really harming ALL our children.

Karen W said...

I have seen a number of blog posts in the last year or so about schools becoming increasingly unwelcoming to boys in other ways. For example, requiring writing in math class, daily journaling, assignments asking children to share their feelings, assigning girl-friendly young adult novels rather than more non-fiction/more boy-friendly fiction.

I will second KD in that I also probably didn't think much about how boys might experience things differently until I had my son. Certainly worth reflecting on how schools can provide positive experiences for all children.

Chris said...

Thanks, KD, Honu-girl, and Karen. I'm always surprised how little attention schools pay to the idea of modeling, which strikes me as by far the most powerful way of teaching kids how to interact with other people. Instead, the school tries to lecture, scold, bribe, and punish the kids into good behavior. This seems very misguided, unless you're trying to produce lecturing, bribing scolds.

I certainly don't think that boys are immune to modeling by female teachers, but I think there's a tension there that isn't as present with girls. Girls can find a much more complete model of how to act by watching female teachers than boys can. That may be due to gender role expectations that we can wish were not there, but recognizing that fact doesn't make the boys' choices any easier.

Mandy said...

I think this is a really interesting post. It's clear that boys and girls are different. They develop at different rates, they mature at different rates and their learning styles might be different (pretty big generalizations I realize) I think it would benefit both boys and girls to have teachers if even for the most basic reason to model that being a male teacher of young kids is not a novel occurrence.
Just from my observations it seems the further up in education you go, the more male instructors you run into.
I know my nephew who is a new teacher was told by various instructors, supervising teachers, principals and advisers that he should really consider teaching Kindergarten. He shared with me that he thought parents would not welcome that. I told him that he would be welcomed with open arms among the parents I knew and how refreshing it would be. I wonder if there is some unspoken stigma or something associated with men teacher younger elementary age kids. In the end, because of many districts having hiring freezes he ended up taking the first job he was offered, 6th grade.
I wonder if there are any readers who are teachers who have some insight?
Because of my son's needs, I've been reading quite a bit about Universal Design Learning (UDL). Here's a link to a short video from Ira Socol who blogs about education and UDL
<a href="</a> It addresses a lot of the same concerns about individual learning styles.

Chris said...

Thanks, Mandy. The link to that video didn't seem to work right, so here's another try.

KD said...

The person I was thinking of is Richard Whitmire. He wrote a book called "Why Boys Fail" and he also had a blog at I can't say I'm hugely familiar with his work.

Karen W--I've heard the concerns about math before, and this happened a little with our son. For any child who has math skills that are ahead of their reading/writing skills, I think that can be frustrating.

I'd agree that it is meaningful for the boys to have male figures that they can connect to at school. I'd agree, especially that for behavioral expectations, modeling the expectations is the most important thing of all...rather than lectures, etc.

There does seem to be a greater number of male teachers at the junior high level, and from what I gather at the high school level as well.

One thing I have noticed that is sort of a pendulum swing from years ago when we would all learn about lots of accomplished males in our social studies classes, is that at least in our school there seems to be little focus on important historical figures. I think boys of today definitely like to learn about important people in'd be nice to see a happy medium, especially for those kids who have less access to libraries, etc., to independently pursue learning about people that might interest them.