Over the past two years I’ve taught an all-boys class in a co-educational school. It has been a learning experience par excellence – at times horrifying, mostly boisterous, rarely tense, full of laughter, and – very often – pure mayhem.
Boys often cop a bit of a bad rap in education. They’re too noisy, too fidgety, too ‘naughty’. Any educator will tell you the horror stories of the ‘bad’ boy that they’ve taught in their time. My personal favourite is what I call ‘The Theory of J’ – apparently, any boy with a J-starting name (Jayden, Jack, Jarrod, etc) is going to be a ratbag. Or is it that the ratbags are always named J-something? I guess my son James is a lost cause then.. Anyway, I digress..
Boys classes are not only fun but can also be places of incredible learning and dynamic thinking. In my experience, the key to a productive boys class is the three B’s – boundaries, behaviour and buddies.
The first ‘B’ – boundaries – is probably the most important facet of my classes. On the first day with any new group of students (all boys or co-ed), I always spend some time discussing and setting-out what the common expectations for the class will be. This process ensures that everyone in the classroom knows that they have a part to play in the success of the learning group. In a boys class, this process also establishes an initial set of boundaries and creates a sense of safety. Boys need to feel safe in the classroom – for many, the classroom represents one of the most threatening environments in their lives. Boundaries also represent something to challenge, and challenging boundaries is an integral part of a teenage boys’ development. In challenging boundaries, boys are not being ‘naughty’, but investigating – investigating the soundness of the boundaries, whether they are flexible or rigid. Certain boundaries have to be flexible, especially as the relationship between student and teacher deepens, as this encourages trust and good faith. However, if all boundaries are flexible, boys will at best ignore them, or at worst stampede all over them like a herd of brumbies. Consequences are imperative and must be enforced consistently. This demonstrates that there is a fairness and an environment of respect in the classroom. To support this, a process of restorative practice (see Youtube clip here) as outlined by Dr Ramon Lewis, is imperative. If a boy thinks that he can never ‘rejoin the group’ following a challenge to boundaries – he will either become non-responsive and despondent or, worse, continually try to seek attention – negative attention, if need be.
As outlined above, boundaries lead directly into the second ‘B’ – behaviour. Boys can be bad, but they can also be delightful. If a boy feels safe, if he is aware of the boundaries to his current environment, he is best positioned for learning. Managing difficult behaviours in an all boys class is, in my opinion, pretty simple. It’s all about the relationship that is developed with individual students and the class as a whole. Knowing something about each student, taking an interest in their life outside of school, sharing a joke – these small acts can be very powerful. Even the most disruptive, belligerent child has something about them that can be harnessed to help manage behaviour. Boys especially are very keen to impress. If you can take an interest in them that is beyond the classroom, they will strive to impress you – often with good behaviour! Another aspect to behaviour that I feel is fundamental is the impact of my own on the students. Role modelling the actions, the respect and the expectations is critical. Symbolic leadership is very seductive in an all-male environment. Boys want consistency, honesty, humour and fragility. They experience emotion and need to see that emotion can be expressed positively and safely.
The final ‘B’ are the buddies. Buddies play a big influence on a boys’ mindset and attitude to learning. Two boys may not be ‘friends’ in the traditional sense, but by the simple commonality of male-ness, there is a potential bond that can be fostered into something positive. I conduct all of my classes with a focus on teamwork and collaboration – trying to create an environment where everybody feels that they can contribute to the creation of something bigger than themselves. In my experience, this creates a group of individuals who – although they may not be ‘friends’ or ‘mates’ – can work towards a goal as buddies in learning.