Friday March 1st 2013

If boys struggle to learn from women… then why?

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This post was first published in Bea Magazine on 24 Feb 2013.

When my daughter started at the primary school she currently attends, I noted that not a single staff member was male. I was aware that primary teaching is an area where women dominate by numbers, but I was still slightly surprised that there were no men working there at all. During her reception year it emerged that one of the school’s class teachers was leaving, and her replacement, it later transpired, was a man. The school hadn’t especially gone looking for a man, but a good male candidate popped up, and they appointed him.

I was interested by the reaction from parents. Most of them seemed happy with the turn of events, but the most vocally pleased about it were the parents of boys, who clearly feel that having a male teacher is important for male children, in particular. I recall a conversation with a mother of boys – a lovely woman – who was especially happy with the news. She explained that her son has had some trouble settling in school, and his teachers say that he doesn’t listen, pay attention, obey. What happened next came as a real shock to me; she said: “When they tell me that, I feel like saying “well it’s no wonder, is it, with all you women nagging him all the time?'”.

I am not singling this woman out for criticism. Like I said, she’s a warm, lovely woman, very friendly, and she’s raising sweet boys that my daughter is fond of. But I can’t forget what she said. This wholesale criticism of women teachers came from the mouth of a woman, and that, to me, is indicative of just how ingrained into all of us is the tendency to denigrate women in a position of authority, and of how much more forgiving we are towards men. I suspect I might in the past have done this sort of thing myself, even.

The opinion of that mother, though not expressed quite so directly by other parents, was, I think, broadly espoused by many of them. And all of this got me thinking a great deal more about the topic of boys’ education, which I am aware has generated academic reports and myriad newspaper articles in which journalists ask questions like “ARE WE FAILING OUR BOYS?”, point out that male children aren’t generally doing as well as girls in school, and emphasise the need to do something about it. I agree that it’s a shame if boys aren’t keeping up with girls, but in my opinion, blaming women isn’t going to fix the problem.

Now I’m not saying that everyone in the world thinks that women, or the ‘feminisation’ of education is to blame, but judging by the opinions I came across reading news articles and blogs on this, it’s clear that a great many do. They say that boys need strong role models, that they need authority figures, that they can’t learn from women; that women tell them off for doing the things that come naturally to them (being naughty and boisterous is the preserve of boys only, obviously) and that this is damaging to them. Their conclusion is that we need more men teaching boys.

I think the idea that noisiness, naughtiness, and physical roughness are the natural behaviours of boys, not girls, is fallacious, and I’m also pretty suspicious of the very confident assertions of those who maintain that boys and girls learn in entirely different ways, not least because I’ve recently been reading the work of Cordelia Fine, who argues pretty convincingly against the existence of inherent differences in the male and female brain. But I’m going to put aside the fact that I disagree with the belief that boys are intrinsically different from girls for the moment (and therefore the argument that they may need to be educated differently), and I’m going to put aside all the other considerations that possibly need taking into account when considering our current problems with education of boys. Not least the one that no matter how hard a girl works and how well she does, the boys will still mostly go on to higher paid jobs. Ahem.

I’m putting all that aside to just concentrate, for a moment, at what’s leaping out at me here, from my conversations with other parents, from my reading of articles in papers like the Daily Mail, from my perusal of internet blogs written by the concerned parents of boys. When they say that boys need, and don’t have, these strong role models, these authority figures, that boys don’t do well under female educators, what they are saying is this: boys don’t respect women enough to learn from them.

Why are we accepting this status quo? Why are we just nodding our heads and agreeing that boys can’t be expected to respect and obey a female teacher? If these boys have no respect for them, surely it’s because we (their families, or society) are teaching them that it’s okay to disrespect a woman?  That it’s fine to not be afraid of upsetting her, to laugh at her when she gets cross, to think that actually, she doesn’t really know much, isn’t an expert, and clearly doesn’t know as much as a man.

I can not and will not believe that this attitude is somehow innate to small boys. I think it begins when they hear adults admonishing with phrases like “don’t be such a girl”; when their parents have one rule for them and another rule for their sisters; when they watch the television and see a preponderance of female characters created to be ridiculous, compared to a wealth of male characters created to be taken seriously; when they are encouraged only in traditionally ‘boyish’ pursuits, and persuaded to regard traditionally ‘girlish’ pursuits as demeaning. Disrespect and dislike for women pervades our society, and it would appear that boys are absorbing those messages at a very young age.

It seems to me that me that there is a choice here; we can try and persuade men to train as teachers and go and teach boys themselves. Or, we can try harder to ensure that boys respect women. To be honest, both would be nice.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net