Tuesday, February 28, 2012

teaching boys...

Part of the joy of teaching is interacting with my learners. I teach in a co-ed high school. I spent 12 years in an all-girls’ school and I come from a matriarchal family so my experience of boys has largely been through interactions in public spaces, friendships and university. However, as a teacher, I now have to interact with teenage boys daily.

The boys I teach are mostly pimple-faced, scrawny-looking and some are shy. Those who aren’t shy are usually the ones with the loudest voices, often get attention from girls easily and don’t mind telling me how charming they are and how girls fall for it. There are also the burly characters who communicate an aggressive demeanour simply by sitting in my classroom. They all wear their insecurities as teenagers in different ways, beneath the “too cool for school” swagger. I’ve already witnessed a fist fight between two boys; however, within two weeks of the fight they were friends.

Gender in education is a minefield filled with many generalisations. Some are as simplistic as which subjects boys and girls show different performance levels in. The assumption is that girls are better at languages and boys are better at maths and science. As a language teacher I was fascinated when I discovered literature about the “feminisation of language instruction”. Educationists suggest that the way language is taught in schools is targeted towards a particular kind of learner: typically one who can sit in the class and listen quietly while the teacher speaks. Because girls are seen as compliant when it comes to classroom behaviour, they often do better in language education. Language classes require learners to be reflexive and this thinking is couched within the assumption that girls are better at this than boys.

I have tried to relate this to my lessons and I have noticed that beyond the behavioural problems I often have in my classes, the boys I teach simply want to play outside, where learning is about sport (life is a party and “boys will be boys”). Their writing is often not as verbose as the girls’. This is not to say they do not perform as well as the girls, but they are also more inclined to drift and lose concentration when I teach.

Apart from the academic aspect of teaching, I have tried to create space for conversation in my classroom. Where there are any sexist incidences, I try using these for further conversation and teaching. I recently witnessed a boy “tap” one of the girls in my class (on her butt). The girl’s response was that of any woman whose body has been made a toy: she retaliated by slapping the boy.

Anyone else may have suggested that this is the nature of teenagers who have raging hormones so I shouldn’t worry myself too much. When I intervened, the boy seemed confused. This is a common joke amongst boys and girls at school, but the girl was firm that she felt disrespected. I tried to ask why he thought it was an acceptable joke that he can “tap” girls and he simply saw this as a game.

My focus on boys in my classroom (and the school as a whole) is that there are enough positive images directed at girls for how they can be in the world. But I find there aren’t nearly as many positive messages indicating a different way of being for boys. It is accepted that teenage boys are violent, permanently horny, and disinterested in anything that might provoke any thinking. There are also underlying messages for what it means being a boy in a poor community and the norms that are expected in that social setting.

I have no doubt the challenges young boys are facing and the pressures to become “manly men”, but being a young feminist teacher I do not want to be the teacher that harangues boys about the gender question. When the gender debate emerges in class, boys are inclined to get defensive which isn’t a surprise because they are young boys growing up in a sexist society.

I don’t want to be the person who tells the boys who or what they should be, but I do wish I could engage them about the invisible sexism they perform daily without even realising it. And I would like them to seriously consider what it means being a man without dominating space or women.

This is a conversation for both girls and boys, it’s about being human. But between teaching grammar and “characteristics of a short story” it’s not that

[this first appeared on Feminist SA earlier today]

Monday, February 13, 2012


This is the monster that all teachers make peace with in spite of the joys of being in the classroom!I have been having a great two weeks and planning my next blog post because of the wonderful and sometimes not so wonderful experiences in my classroom.But as I have watched the files pile up on my desk and my school bag become heavier every afernoon, marking is the only thing I can think of.

Assessment marks are due in March.My colleague and I have to make sure that a set number of assessments are done this term in order for the term mark to be created and also meeting curriculum requirements showing that learning is happening in the classroom.So while the kids complain that we are expecting too much and giving them too much homework,I'm trying to make them realise that while they have too much work,I have to mark their writing.

And sadly,this has not been a rivetting process(a post for another day,maybe once I've finished my marking for this term and I can reflect on the kind of work that has been handed in).My efforts of warding off the angst that comes with the marking have not been successful.In between trying to have a life, making time for sleep and editing my thesis so I can hand in the final final draft at the end of this month,the marking seems to be at the bottom of my priority list.And that means I'm shooting myself in the foot.

This morning I woke up in a panic.I literally woke up from a dream where it seems I had failed dismally at keeping up with my marking to the extent that I stayed home during a week day to finish the marking that was due.It seems that in the dream I was trying to be super teacher and I promised my learners that I was going to be ready with their comments and scripts in record time.Upon realising that I had failed them,I lay comatose in bed licking my wounds because in the dream I had failed myself and my learners.

However, in reality,I'm trying to be optimistic about this process.Granted,some of the work should have been handed back to the kids sooner so they can check mistakes before they hand in on Wednesday and Friday.But instead I spent some time in most lessons making comments about some of the issues emerging from the marking thus far,things they ought to be aware of before they hand in again.That's the best I can do because in relaity I know I cannot be super teacher who can take in piles of scripts from 4 classes and return all the work marked with comments within one week.And that's okay.

So hopefully by the end of this term I will have some kind of strategy for keeping up with the marking process.So far I have decided to spend less time in the staff room unless I absolutely have to be there.Instead I stay in my classroom during breaktimes and I multitask with an apple in one hand and a green pen in the other!