On the response to my article about teaching boys

It’s been eye opening, having something published in the national media. My article, which appeared in the ‘i’, has been all over Twitter and Facebook. People have been arguing about it on Reddit. I’ve been told that men’s groups in America have been discussing it. It’s been re-blogged on countless websites, and no doubt there are countless other places it has popped up that I don’t know about.

Overwhelmingly, the responses were positive. I’d guess 95% of the feedback I’ve seen or heard has praised the article, generally for its honesty, bravery, or accuracy. Of course, given what I was writing about, and the brazen style in which I choose to write, I can’t complain when people with different opinions challenge what I’ve written. In fact, I welcome it. I’m still learning, will always be learning, and can learn from being challenged.

However, for the above to hold true, the criticism must engage with the issues I raised in the article. Challenge me on the fact I have chosen to step in a ring and fight other men. Challenge me on the fact I hold my pupils to account. Challenge me on the fact I expect compliance.

Please don’t make baseless accusations or take words to mean something that they don’t. As teachers and educators, even when we disagree, I don’t see any reason why we can’t at least credit the ‘opposition’ with having the pupils’ best interest at heart. We disagree because we are passionate about the future of our children. It’s worthwhile remembering that.

With that in mind, I’ll try to respond with good grace to what I feel was some particularly unfair criticism. If I fail, I apologise in advance.

Below is a series of tweets that upset me.


Let’s start at the start.

1. “He says he manages his classroom like a (manly) boxing gym”

I didn’t say that. I used boxing as analogy throughout because I am a boxing fan, I have boxed, and lots of the boys I teach like to talk boxing with me. I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, or you just don’t like it, but there’s really nothing you can do. Boxing is part of our culture.

2. “When men see violence as natural to manhood it’s very likely they also conflate ‘gaining respect’ with dominance over others”

Right. I didn’t say violence is natural to manhood. Some may argue it is. I might even be inclined to myself, given a certain set of parameters, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m 100% confident I’m correct about that.

Let’s put gender aside for a moment. Don’t you think many parents would resort to violence to protect their children?

But is violence natural to manhood? Perhaps. But do I make any claims to this in my article? No. 

As for gaining respect with dominance? You’ve chosen a deliberately pejorative word there (one I don’t even use in the article). The closest I come to talking about “domination” is when I talk about “compliance” and “assertiveness”, and I make it clear that I want compliance only so the boys I teach will have a calm environment in which to learn, especially those quieter, less confident boys who need it most. Perhaps you think I should allow them to be teased and bullied? Of course, I don’t really believe you think that, but if I didn’t insist pupils comply with the rules, this is what would happen. I’m not prepared to allow any of my boys to experience that, and frankly it angers me that I have to defend my right to protect the boys I teach from bullying. I’ve had more than one these boys approach me this year and say things like: “Sir, if I do well on this test, I won’t get moved up a set will I?” Won’t get moved up! It’s both lovely and heartbreaking to have a pupil say that, but, putting that aside, the reason this pupil is desperate to remain in my class is because he feels safe there. He feels he can express himself. When he was being bullied in a different class, it was me he came to. It’s hardly likely he would have done or said any of these things had he felt I was ‘dominating’ him.

I also explicitly state there is a ‘fine line’ between ‘assertion’ and ‘aggression’ and that it is “incumbent” on teachers to ensure we remain on the correct side of that line. So really, am I looking to dominate, or do I just want to provide my pupils with a safe environment?

3. “Violence may not be described as the ideal here but it is implied that ‘real men’ like violence”

You contradict yourself. Anyway, it is not implied that “real men” like violence. It is explicitly stated that I myself enjoy certain forms of violence. You might not like that. I don’t care. But just because I am prepared to say I enjoy boxing, it doesn’t mean I think “real men” like violence. Indeed, I never use the phrase “real men”. And I wouldn’t do so; it’s crass, and, frankly, unhelpful.

4. “(They also just learn to suppress emotions)”

You’re just making stuff up now. I never even go close to mentioning anyone should suppress their emotions.

5. “They are clearly linking respect with a performance of masculinity”

Not entirely sure what you mean here. Are you suggesting that people should not show respect to one another? I don’t know what you understand by respect, but I mean tolerance, manners, civility, politeness, and that is the classroom environment I have created. Is there a problem with that?

6. “The implication of this theory is that only ‘real men’ can teach ‘tough inner-city boys’ which is untrue, harmful, and demeaning.”

Theory? I think you’ve mistaken me for an academic. I’m just a man trying to do my best for the boys I teach, and I’m explaining how I’ve had some success.

As an aside, generally you’re very loose with your language, but I must admit I like you’re tricolon in that comment. And your use of the Oxford comma even more so. Thumbs up! It’s just a shame your assertion is another one based on nothing. Yet again let me remind you that I never mentioned ‘real men’. Further, both my mentor and HoD are women and, Jesus, both are hard, hard women, as they and I have to be to teach in the school that we do. Incidentally, I hope you are as offended by them being ‘hard’ women as you are by my being a ‘real’ man. Whatever that is.

7. “It’s hard not to notice the words ‘love’ and ’empathy’ don’t appear in this theory at all, not even as an end goal”

Is it? Is it really? This is a risible argument. I think it’s clear from beginning to end of the article that I care deeply about my pupils. I don’t ‘love’ them though. I’m not weird like that. But throughout I talk about ‘respect’ and ‘loyalty’ and ‘trust’ and ‘being the first to advocate for them’ and ‘having their best interest at heart’ and ‘valuing their education on their behalf’ and ‘calling them out on sexist and homophobic language’ and ’embody[img] something more than teacher’ etc. To make the comment above, you must ignore so much of the article in which I touch on the relationship I have with my pupils with my pupils that it can only be seen as a quite deliberate attempt to twist my words to fit some prior agenda you’ve brought with you. At least have the decency to be honest about that. Say that you don’t agree with my approach because of your principles, whatever they may be, but don’t twist my words into something they’re not, don’t make me out to be something I’m not. If all the things you say are true, why were my pupils so angry when they discovered I would be gone for three weeks?

Oh, and I’ll just say again. I have no theory.

8. “So what’s most frightening about this is that some white men who teach might see a classroom as a place to prove their manhood.”

This is getting more and more outlandish now. Well done for looking at my picture. Congratulations for noticing I am white. But what the hell does that have to do for anything? You’ve succeeded only in revealing your own prejudices. Presumably, you don’t care, but if you haven’t got any better arguments than ‘you’re white’ then that’s a good indicator that you arguments rest on shaky foundations.

As for the classroom being a place to prove my manhood? Mate, I’ve boxed for Christs’ sake. I’ve stood across a ring from other guys who have been trained to fight, but yeh, actually you are right, I need to prove my manhood by teaching kids about stories. Please, stop and think before writing such rubbish. It’s embarrassing.

Before I get accused of anything else, allow me to clarify: I do not think I’m a man because I’ve boxed, nor do I think someone has to have boxed to be a ‘real man’. In fact, I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘real man’. In truth, I have better things to spend my time worrying about. As I said, boxing and other forms of violence (sport, films etc.) are a part of my experience as a man. Mine. No one else’s. Mine. Let’s not extrapolate anything about ‘real men’ from that. K?

9. “And as the end of this piece exemplifies, the only way to prove your masculinity is through dominance. That’s the ultimate ‘lesson'”

Firstly, as someone who enjoys good writing I admire the way you’ve ended this. Nice work. Total rubbish, of course, but a strong ending.

Actually, the ending was a small bit of banter between me and some pupils with whom I have a good relationship, based on adult-child respect that has been hard won. Of course the real lesson, as explicitly made clear in the article, is that the boys wouldn’t accept me until I began to behave in a certain way and had proved certain things (mainly that I would be sticking around, not that I am a ‘real man’). That may well not fit in with your ‘theory’ of education but unfortunately I’m working in a real school, with real kids, and I’m trying my utmost to help them achieve the grades that will open doors when they leave school. I’m comfortable with that. What are you doing?

10. “‘no excuses’ language coded throughout, too. most hated part of the whole school reform movement. confusing respect w compliance.”

Ok. At least this begins to engage in some debate. First sentence is pure echo chamber though. I don’t actually confuse respect with compliance. They are not synonymous, I am well aware of that. However, in this case, the compliance follows on from the respect, and that’s made pretty clear in the article.

11. “This article was thoroughly frightening to read. His value systems are inherently patriarchal and capitalist. Jesus.”

Meh. Whatevs. Can you imagine any situation where this isn’t the answer?

12. “Can’t wait. As a former educator and one who grapples especially with systemic treatment of black boys as likely offenders, it rankled.”

I’ve thought over this a lot, and the only reason at all I can think of for your bringing up of ‘black boys’ is because you’re confusing ‘disadvantaged’ with ‘black’. I hope I’m wrong about that, because they most certainly are not one and the same, but I can see no other reason why you would bring race into it like that? Allow me to re-iterate, I don’t mention race once during the article, so I’m not sure why you would bring it up? It perhaps reveals some of your own prejudices about kids in tough schools? The school I work in is extremely diverse (over 60 language spoken) but only a small percentage of the children are black or of African descent. This is not, and never was, an article about race.

Right. That’s it folks. Well done if you’ve made it to the end. I’ll end with this “manly” quote:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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