The more I think about the students in our classrooms that struggle to walk the conformity line - the more I realize that the game needs to change.
In my experience, most students that are "flagged" as having behavioural ‘problems’ or poor decision-making seem to be boys. It's staggering to think that the gender distribution is THAT imbalanced. But, the truth is, it always has been.
Do you know what else has always been the way it is? Answer: Some of the classrooms in which these boys find themselves.
Perhaps the reason that so many of these boys seem unfocused, uncaring and unmotivated to learn in some of our classrooms is because they are. Sit still, don't talk, don't fidget, write neatly, spell correctly, raise your hand, hands to yourself....sound familiar?
The way that school is supposed to look, sound and be like, has largely remained unchanged for decades. Conformity to rules, routines, procedures, and often, teacher-determined expectations is at the forefront; especially, for those of us who feel that we are best displaying our success in teaching by a quiet classroom with the sounds of pencils pushed against the paper.
When I reflect upon my own professional practice, I would have to agree. In my first few years of teaching, I strived to gain the classroom management skills so that I could actually get a class full of grade 8 students to work quietly – uninterrupted – in silence on a task that I assigned.
There is a certain satisfaction – which I believe is the assertion of control – that a teacher feels when the class is quietly working on task. But, how much of the school day is spent striving for this outcome? I absolutely believe that there is a time and place for quiet work in the classroom – but I also firmly hold that there MUST BE time in the instructional day for unstructured, creative, and yes, even loud learning to take place (and I'm not talking about recess).
This is where we are failing our students that struggle to sit still and be quiet. This is where we are often failing our jittery, active and energetic boys. Are there also girls who need to learn in this way and break free of the chains of peace and quiet? Definitely! I am well aware that there are many students of differing genders for which these words hold true. But, I have watched MINIMAL focus and attention in supporting our boys with new educational initiatives over my own teaching career (13 years) for their own self-esteem and well-being – at least not, in the same way that other programs for girls have been implemented and explored.
It’s time to help our boys.
As a father of two (ages 5 and 8), I am realizing more and more that many of our classrooms are ill-equipped to evolve in the ways needed to support our struggling students. These needs to be a shift in what the real expectations for learning and development in our schools should be in the 21st century.
Student self-esteem is a delicate and challenging issue to approach in any case – but the culture of boys and the pride of masculinity make an educator’s task even more daunting. Many boys often don’t want to talk about their feelings. They have been systematically programmed not to share their worries and fears in a way - that they perceive - somehow demonstrates their strength and confidence. The myths of masculinity and culture of Boykind need to be broken and re-defined.
Let’s start in our schools. The single-most important tool that I attempt to use with a ‘difficult’ student is forging a positive relationship. It requires some surveillance to determine the best approach. By speaking to students, we gain insights into their own interests, beliefs and most of all, character. You can tell a great deal about a student by what they choose to divulge to you (their teacher) or not share.
Building a strong rapport with a student allows you to become a “trusted adult” in the school environment and someone who they can not only “count on” but also will become someone to whom they are accountable. Many of our boys are craving a positive role model (especially from their male teachers) who can provide an alternative view of the gender than the bumbling male idiot during commercials or tv shows. Seriously, watch an hour of television and keep track of how the men are portrayed (especially during ads) - through the eyes of a 7-year-old...
I used to begin each year by telling the students in my class that I knew very little about them – as of right now. I would explain that I have tried my best to avoid conversations with colleagues on how they were in someone else’s class – because I am only interested in who they are and how they conduct themselves in this moment moving forward. Providing a fresh start and a blank slate is something within my own control as an educator.
I’m not suggesting that I ignore details about special needs programming or safety issues; rather, I selectively frame behaviour instances in a context that takes into account more than simply a student’s predetermination for negative or “undesirable” behaviour choices.
The students in my class who had been building a terrific reputation for themselves in their schooling as intelligent, trustworthy and responsible were given, yet another, opportunity to show me these attributes and the character traits that my colleagues had praised over the years.
The ‘impressionable’ group – sometimes referred to as ‘followers’ – were provided with a chance to set themselves on the right path for the year and possibly break away from some of the negative choices that they had made previously.
Most importantly, the “challenging” students had been given an opportunity to begin anew in setting goals, building relationships and demonstrating their potential to become more responsible and positive. I don’t claim to have fixed every troubled or “challenging” student who spent time in my classroom. But I do feel that many of them were given the right nudge at the right moment to inform and set the context for their decision-making.
Many of our "troubled" students are developmentally-stuck in attempting to meet their own basic needs - food, water, shelter, safety, security, love and a postive self-image. These are the first things that we MUST address before the math lesson matters or their narrative is finished.
Student behaviour management is a tightrope walk. Contrary to what some of us have heard while training to become a teacher, you are allowed to smile before Christmas. In fact, you should….it reminds the students that you are a person with emotions and investments in their learning and lives. Find as much common ground with them as you can – but all the while you are still setting a high levels of expectation for them and their learning. You shouldn’t need to be their friend; instead, they will need you to be their support and guide.
Learning requires equal parts of idea (not content), facilitation (not delivery), environment (not structure), startegies and tools (not equipment) and perspective (not rationale). As teachers, we cannot successfully plan and utilize any of these components; without first understanding the students in our classroom, and building a positive, reciprocal relationship with them.