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5 Ways to Effectively Teach Boys in Secondary School

The gap between male and female attainment at school is persistent – and planning a few lessons about football isn’t going to close it, warn Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts...

  • 5 Ways to Effectively Teach Boys in Secondary School

Our book, Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools was born out of a response to the snake-oil solutions to raising male achievement that proliferate much of the discourse around boys and their relative academic underachievement in comparison to girls.

Myths abound: engage boys by introducing a competitive element to your lessons; engage boys by using technology; engage boys by choosing topics that are relevant to their own lives… the list goes on.

The fact is, these myths, like all myths, are totally fallacious. If teachers really want to improve outcomes for boys, then they need to build positive relationships with them. We recommend the following steps to getting boys on side:

1 | Avoid confrontation

Never try to ‘out-man’ the boys. Using your increased physical size or shouting to beat down bad behaviour is never going to work. Instead, when reprimanding a boy, avoid invading their personal space and remain calm and polite as you demand their compliance.

Research by Reid et al found that Key Stage 2 pupils viewed being shouted at as ineffective and damaging to long-term relationships between teachers and pupils.

This shouldn’t come as surprising. Who’d want to forge a relationship with someone who shouts?

Shouting is loud and scary. And yet still, there are teachers out there who think that ‘naughty’ boys need a domineering male teacher screaming in their faces in order to correct their behaviour, when in reality, what shouting at boys does is simply reinforce negative masculine stereotypes about male power and aggression.

As teachers, we should aim to model the behaviours we expect to see in our pupils. So, next time a boy is acting up in class, do your best to remain calm and quiet as you address the problem, even if inside you’re shouting and swearing like a sailor who’s trod on an upturned plug.

2 | Depersonalise behaviour

Some boys, believing that they’ll never get recognition for any academic output, will try to seek attention by playing up in class.

What’s more, for many boys, being told off is a status symbol that could earn approval from peers.

Teachers who tell off boys publicly and by constantly referring to the troublemakers by name – Jack, stop that messing about. Jack, can you not put your pencil in Amir’s ear please. Jack, could you please refrain from sticking post-it notes on Susan’s forehead – are simply giving the boys the attention and rebel status they crave.

Teachers would do better to reprimand boys privately.

In fact, an Australian study by Josephine Infantino and Emma Little found that of 350 pupils sampled, 78% felt that a private rebuke was the most effective method of dealing with inappropriate behaviour.

Only 12% thought that a public reprimand was effective.

In instances where behaviour needs to be addressed in the here and now of the lesson, avoid using names: I’m just going to wait while those at the back stop talking.

3 | Involve parents and find quick wins

We often hear teachers saying that boys respond well to praise. Actually, this isn’t always the case.

Boys are not a homogenous mass after all, and every one you teach is different from the next.

What we do know is that for some boys, public praise is not welcomed, because being praised publicly, in front of other boys, could damage their valuable masculine status.

What’s really effective when dealing with boys like this, are phone calls home to parents.

Research has found that positive contact with home is ‘universally effective’ in raising standards of behaviour.

Be sure also to give boys a taste of success. Contrary to popular belief, it is success that begets motivation, rather than the other way round.

Sometimes, this might mean ‘spoon-feeding’ an answer to a boy in a 1:1 chat and then asking him to tell the class the answer in a whole class discussion later on so he can experience the pleasure of ‘being right.’

4 | Focus on productivity

Often boys will opt out of doing work because in the status-driven world of masculinity it’s easier to not try and fail, than it is to try and risk failure.

To get boys putting pen to paper, teachers need to have relentless high expectations when it comes to what you want them to produce.

Refusing to produce what you deem to be an adequate amount of work in a given time frame is an act of defiance and should be treated as such.

Be clear on exactly what you want everybody to produce and praise boys discreetly when they meet your demands.

When they don’t, sanction the offenders in line with your behaviour policy. Often, dogged insistence on silent work until the slackers adjust their working habits can be very effective.

5 | Display confidence, knowledge, and humility

Boys (and girls) have more respect for teachers who know their stuff. Being an expert in your subject (or subjects) is a must.

Plan time into your week to develop and strengthen your subject knowledge. It’s far more valuable than filling in spreadsheets and writing to-do lists!

Knowing your subject will make you a more confident teacher, which is a good thing; but be humble too.

Self-deprecating humour works well. In fact, humour generally has been found to have a positive effect on retention and recall.

Be warned though: sarcasm as a form of humour is a huge no-no. ‘Banter’ with the boys is not appreciated. Even when boys seem to be enjoying it, they’re probably not.

Matt Pinkett is a head of English in Surrey, and Mark Roberts is assistant principal at a mixed 11-18 comprehensive school. They are the authors of Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools (Routledge, £16.99).

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