During the past ten years, much has been written regarding the education of boys and how they act. “Girl behaviour became the gold standard,” according to Raising Cain coauthor Michael Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.” However, the language and emotional attachment boys utilize in different social situations is well worth taking a look at. Research psychologist, Leonard Sax, argued that schools need to address the social behaviours of boys, and adapt learning environments and teaching practices to their gender-specific actions. Boys have a language of their own and it will often be misunderstood as malicious, careless, non-serious, or foolish and indifferent. Author Jim Stenson put it this way, “Getting to know a boy is like looking at a roughly kept home with an untended garden and a make-shift fence; however, once the door to the home is opened, a beautiful interior can be found.”
Having taught at an all-boys elementary school for ten years, and as V.P. for two, I can put forth some tangible examples of gender-specific language and reactions of male students to help further understanding.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
This comment usually occurs once personal or property damage has taken place. The best of intentions have led them to disaster. Boys tend to be impulsive and often lack the thought patterns to determine short and long-tem effects and consequences. While boosting their friend to retrieve a stuck basketball was a good idea, the unintended result of a bent pole or lack of a safety net has delivered a less than satisfactory ending.
Sir! Johnny is paralysed from the neck down out on the field!
Boys have a tremendous preoccupation with injuries; some stress avoidance at any cost, others revel in risk, while the majority tend to wear them as a badge of courage—each and every injury is portrayed by them and their peers as a major code blue trauma. It’s really about the male mystique and also how much they can shock a supervisory teacher. Every exaggerated comment results in a miraculous recovery. Johnny was up and running is less than two minutes, but he and his peers had their moment in the sun.
Come quick, Johnny is choking for no reason at all!
Can you spot the exaggeration and the element of truth? Johnny is indeed choking and this must be dealt with first; however, the messenger is covering up something. Boys will be quick to point out an emergency and will do so as per the reason of the last example and to genuinely aid their friend. They will also try to cover up any prohibited behaviour in their initial call for help, hoping you might forget the quick admission of guilt. Ninety percent of the time, Johnny has recovered on his own and all that is left to be determined is the reason, in this case, spitballs which had gone through a pen in reverse.
Somebody stole my pencil and hid my binder!
There is in every school in our nation a terrible thief, vandal and bully; his name is “Somebody.” He may even be in your home or office. In actual fact, his real name is Orderliness, first name Lack Of. Male students are very possessive and proud of the space given to them, however, limits not defined lead to a type of Manifest Destiny. The thinking goes like this, “My desk is in my classroom, I can put my books near my desk, the books near my desk are close to the shelf, I can place my material there too.” Before long something has gone missing, and the culprit is SOMEBODY!
Sir, I didn’t do the homework because I didn’t get it.
A good teacher will set homework policy from day one for male students. I usually say that if work is incomplete, to come with a note or see me before the homework check takes place, not during. This creates a fine dynamic of honesty and allows for a generally non-punitive classroom, but with all of the responsibility and sound learning intact. The work must still get done. I have a theory that not understanding homework and admitting to it is directly linked to the male adult behaviour of not seeking medical attention until it’s too late. “I don’t know” is the first step to knowledge.
They’re not laughing at me, they’re laughing near me.
No one enjoys being the butt of a joke, but with young men the nuances of this are fascinating. They do not mind being the class clown and having their peers laugh at them. They also do not mind laughing with the class at themselves. But boys do not like to be laughed AT (there is a difference if the boy hasn’t set up the situation to elicit laughter). Any pointing out of a boy’s weakness or hurting of his pride will result in upset feelings. The Simpsonesque, Ha, Ha.
Boys will take a much longer time than girls to communicate their emotional pain. Your response to a boy you suspect is in distress might be: Is everything okay? (1 minute) How about now? (2 minutes) How about now? (7 minutes) Okay, how about now? (10 minutes). If you stop at the first question, nothing will be revealed. After the seven-minute mark, and the tell-tale quivering upper lip and slightly vibrating chin, the doors of upset will open. This is totally different than with their physical wounds. However, once those doors are open and the waterworks have begun, listen with great empathy and wait until the young man has come up with some of his own solutions. Your contributions will then be receptive, innovative and wise. Boys need trust and time to reveal their emotional pain and DO seek solutions.
Associative thinking is a characteristic of boys. Some examples:
Sir, if we go to war in Afghanistan, won’t they get mad and start an Afghanistan Tire here?
When asked what a leper was (a proud hand was raised), A leper is a large black cat similar to a puma.
Boys will often use this type of reasoning with oral and written communication as they are goal oriented for a response. They will associate their own knowledge rapidly with what you expect of them. Have them slow down, consider what they are saying, and rather than skim their text or thoughts, teach them to devote time to them.
Certainly, more examples exist to illustrate male communication patterns and how to understand them and adapt teaching practices to them. However, teaching a young man requires four critical tenets: understanding, patience, limits and a flexible sense of humour. As much as education has modified itself for female success over the past twenty years, so too must the pendulum swing back to do justice to male students. Boys communicate for effect, the rapid transfer of “unedited” information, and to convey emotion through coded speech. Like their female counterparts, they want your attention and your time; two gifts that teachers of any merit can provide their students. When the opportunity arises again and a young man relays his story to you, listen intently, look for the code behind primary and juvenile male communication, and a door to a beautiful interior will surely open.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manfred J. von Vulte
Manfred J. von Vulte is the Vice Principal, Director of Development at Northmount Private Boys Catholic Elementary School in North York, Ontario.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s March 2009 issue.