A controversial article exploring how to teach boys in a tough school
During a last minute revision lesson before the English Language examinations, one of my Year 11 pupils approached me. “Sir,” he said. “Do you know what mistake you made with us lot?”
Yes, I thought. I was too nice to you at the beginning of the year.
“You were too nice to us at the beginning of the year,” he said.
I sat back in my chair. The other boys in the room looked up from their work in anticipation. Clearly, I knew why the pupil had said this — because it was true — but I asked him to explain himself anyway.
“My brothers say you’re well strict, Sir.”
Recently, I have read a number of Edu-blogs focusing on masculinity, aggression, and violence, in particular from Tom Bennet and @positivteacha, and since I work in a challenging boys’ school, I reckon I have something to add. Further, I like violence. I’ll just repeat that once more for effect: I like violence. I like violence in films, violence in books. I’m most engaged in a sporting event when the aggression is simmering and it threatens to boil over. Boxing is my favourite sport of all, and, until an injury forced me to quit, I boxed a little myself. Of course, I’m not some violent sociopath. Outside of a ring, I haven’t been in any kind of scuffle since my teenage years — a long time ago — but it would be disingenuous of me to deny that I enjoy some forms of violence, and it would be disingenuous of me to claim that this is not a part of my experience as a man, as a male, or as an XY, depending on the extent to which you believe in biological determinism, or nature vs nurture.
But what does this have to do with schools? What role does masculinity play in the context of the classroom? In particular, what does it have to do with teaching and learning? Let us think back to the pupil above. In preparation for next year, the faculty I work in have recently initiated the set changes that would usually occur after the summer, and as a result of these, I’ve ended up teaching both younger brothers of pupil in question, one of whom is in Y7 and the other Y9. When I came to teach their classes, if there was one thing I was damn sure about, it was that I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes as I had earlier in the year. As such, when the classes arrived at my door, I was going to treat them as children who were likely to misbehave, not as young adults who I could inspire and charm wondrously by force of my engaging personality. Ahem. The upshot of this is that to his brothers, but not to him, I am a strict teacher.
I know, I know: all this will make some people uncomfortable. It sounds heartless. It sounds like I don’t care. It sounds like I think kids are all bad. None of these things is true. I’ve worked with young people in a variety of settings over a number of years, including PRU, NEET, LACES, and mainstream, and I can honestly say that, out of the thousands of children I have worked with, I can count on one hand the number I think are in way “bad”. Kids often do bad things but rarely does that mean they’re bad people. And yet the comment from the elder sibling is revealing, is it not? He wished I had treated his class like I subsequently treated the classes of his brothers, and whipped them into shape from minute one, rather than trying, generally unsuccessfully, to claw back the behaviour of his class after a terrible beginning. In essence, he wished I had treated them as children who were likely to misbehave — which, with hindsight, they most certainly were and most certainly did.
Now, the school I work in is tough — inner-city, all-boys — as tough as a mainstream school gets. You must be tough to work there, and the boys are only interested in being taught by someone who is tough-enough; someone who is tough-enough to stand up to their challenges, and someone they have tested and proved they can stick around. Someone who won’t up sticks and abandon them when times get tough. So when I stand in front of the class and insist, insist, on compliance I do so not only because those pupils who want to work and learn deserve adults who will provide them with an environment in which they can do so, but also because those boys who present the most challenging behaviour want this too. In fact, they want it the most. They want teachers who are tougher than they are themselves. As their teacher, they want me to be a man who can earn and command their respect, who won’t back down, whose will is stronger than their own. There has been so much this year that has been tough, but it is this battle of will that has been always the sharp point. It is this that has so drained me, emotionally. It is this that has led to me tell those closest to me, in my darkest moments, that this job has “taken something” from me.
But for all that, why, exactly, would a class of disadvantaged boys want some weak-willed teacher? Why would they want to learn from someone who couldn’t last day in the world as they know it? This doesn’t mean they want some knife wielding maniac. It does mean they want someone who can roll with the punches, who is in their corner, who can be trusted to pull them up from the canvas and yet disqualify them if they hit below the belt.
Instinctively, men understand that respect is the foundation of masculinity. When a man enters a new social group, he doesn’t expect equality but understands he must earn respect from his peers before being treated as an equal or a leader. (Incidentally, I believe it is this that is at the root of a lot of destructive male behaviour — a desire to win respect too quickly, or at any cost, can lead men to violence and aggression.) Whether we are a male or female teacher, the important role that respect plays in terms of both boys and masculinity has implications for the ways we treat the boys in our schools. Principally, we might want to consider a few points:
- We damn well better have high expectations. What pupil in their right mind respects a teacher who expects nothing of them? The teacher is failing in in their first and most obvious duty — to improve the child. Of course, children may well say they like a teacher who allows them to behave as though they are a wild animal, but this is based not on respect but on a superficial and present-tense predilection for laziness.
- We better know our subjects. Boys won’t respect someone who they feel has nothing to tell them.
- We better follow through with anything we say we will do. If we don’t have the strength of character to follow through on our words, we’re nothing. We must be also be clear about what we expect: say what we mean and mean what we say. Teenage boys rarely speak in riddles.
- We better demonstrate that we respect ourselves. If a class doesn’t enter my room correctly? “Get back outside. Line up against that wall and don’t say a single word. Each and every one of you knows what I expect. How dare you enter my classroom like that?” Phrased like this, the words have nothing to do with my disappointment with the pupils. The pupils are outside and standing in silence because it’s my room and I’ve set the rules, and I’m demonstrating I have enough self-respect to insist that they’re met. However, when the pupils (silently) return, I’ll frame the resulting (and necessary) conversation in terms of the respect they must show not to me (I’ve already demonstrated the respect I believe I deserve), but to one another — respect for the learning time and environment of themselves and their peers. And, of course, this is the reason why I insist on their following the rules; I value their education, and sometimes often I must value it on their behalf.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that the classroom needs to be a place of respect. But respect looks different to different people in different places and contexts. Sometimes, in a tough, inner-city boys school, there is a need for teachers, again regardless of whether they are male or female, to be… not aggressive, but hyper-assertive. In recent years, many of the traits and traditional ideals associated with manliness have been ridiculed and eroded away, and men are often portrayed as violent monsters, feckless slackers, or useless, half-arsed, domestic pests. But one manly trait that has survived the cull is assertiveness. Assertiveness is, generally, still considered a desirable trait for a man (and increasingly for a woman too). But there is a fine line between assertion and aggression, often finer than we will admit, and when working with children, and in an environment that requires, nay demands, constant assertiveness, while simultaneously testing that assertiveness, it really is incumbent upon us as professionals to reflect on how we are assertive. I’m sure many teachers have ended up on the wrong side of that line once or twice, having been wound up in the wrong way at the wrong moment. If not, most will have witnessed a colleague who has allowed anger to get the best of them. This is understandable, but it is not the way we should aim to assert ourselves. I believe the more supportive SLT are of teachers who are firm and assertive, the less teachers will lose control. Since they know they are working within a framework that backs them, teachers are more likely to remain calm when presented with a challenging situation.
In my department (English), I am the only man, and so during the course of this year, I have collected a number of boys in my classes who it is said “respond better” to a man (sometimes these pupils are known, more simply, as “naughty”). I also have boys who hang around after lessons and ask me to demonstrate how to throw a jab. I have boys who search me out on a Monday morning because they want to talk about the boxing that was on TV at the weekend, and who find me on a Friday to ask who I think will win and why (they’ll often challenge my opinion, but I’m usually correct #JustSayinLads). Whether it’s about books or boxing, the boys will listen because they respect me, and because they think I might say something worth hearing, and yet I know no more about either of these things now than I did at Christmas, when many of the same pupils wouldn’t have listened to me talk on either subject or followed any instruction I gave. All that’s happened in the intervening months is that they’ve come to respect me. The way I’ve earned their respect is simply by demonstrating that I myself believe I deserve it, and I’ve done that by fulfilling the role of a responsible adult, above all, by asserting myself. To fulfil the role of responsible adult, I’ve often had to, for example, tell the pupils “straight”; bellow orders, instructions, and expectations at them; call them out in the frankest of terms (short of swearing) about their casual use of sexist and homophobic language; tell them their work/behaviour/attitude isn’t good enough; and that their excuses don’t interest or bother me. The paradox is that the blunter and more candid I’ve become, the more positively the boys have responded; it seems counter-intuitive, especially in a society that conceives of individual freedom as a mythical thing bestowed on us as though by divinity, rather than a liberty that is fragile and requires careful nurturing if our young people are to turn into truly free adults. Of course, the paradox isn’t really a paradox. We’re social animals and a large part of growing up is learning how to behave in groups. To this end, rules and boundaries are extremely important, and we’re damaging many of our boys when we pussyfoot around their behaviour. For instance, if I called them out on their sexist and homophobic language while coming across like some effete milksop, it would mean nothing. Indeed, when I was a teenager myself, there were few things that irked me more than when some apparently caring do-gooder claimed they “understood” me or asked, “and how does that make you feel?” in a creepily hushed tone. It’s only because I’ve fulfilled an assertive, responsible role that the boys are prepared to listen to what I have to say on these issues. If I can say these things and remain a man, so can they.
All this reached a nadir recently, when my Year 10s, who were so poorly behaved at the beginning of the year that it took several members of staff to even get them in the classroom, were in uproar for the first time in months. What had angered them so? I told them I would be away for three weeks on a placement. The room erupted with accusations: “You’re leaving!” “You won’t come back!” “You’ve got another job!” “You’re lying!” etc etc. As I said earlier, the boys need to know above all that, as their teacher, I won’t abandon them. For me to have left now, after they have accepted me and subordinated to my rules, would have been the ultimate betrayal.
Of course, I understand their anger is really loyalty. But what has changed so profoundly over the course of a few months, so that a class who wouldn’t even enter the classroom, who would systematically throw pencils and pens at me, now can’t countenance the prospect of 15 English lessons with a different teacher? Trust. By demanding their respect, by sticking to my word for months on end, by holding them to account and refusing to excuse their poor behaviour, I’ve eventually created an environment in which they can trust the parameters, and in which they feel like they have someone to look up to. Don’t get me wrong, my classroom is hardly some Utopian paradise, where hitherto difficult and aggressive boys miraculously metamorphose into chivalrous and polite young gentlemen. And there are teachers in my school who are much better at behaviour management than I. But my classroom is a place where work happens and where progress is made. Undoubtedly, for some of the boys in my Y10 class, I embody something more than a teacher, something that is missing in the rest of their life (and while I’ve been away, I know a number of them have checked with other members of staff to see if I’m really coming back). But more than that, they know that while I’ll chide, rebuke, and reproach them when they’re out of line, I’ll also be at front of the queue to advocate for them. They understand that everything I do, I do with their interests in mind. In some sense, I’ve taken the attitude of the boxing gym and applied it to the classroom. I’ve had to break them down so I can build them up.
Shortly before I went on the placement, one of pupils piped up during a piece of silent writing. “Sir,” he said. “Could you beat Raymond in a boxing match?”
Raymond, often a challenging pupil, is a little bit taller and a whole lot heavier than I.
“Yes,” I said.
Up looked Raymond. “How do you know that sir?”
“Imagine you’re playing badminton, Raymond,” I said. “If you’ve never played before and your opponent has played for five years, do you think you’d beat him?”
And that is the answer the pupils wanted. They got back to work.