One of the first things we can do is examine our attitudes toward boys. We all have certain “programs” downloaded into our brains that we’re not even aware of — personal, family, and cultural biases passed down over time. One of these commonly held biases is that “boys are a problem,” or to use William Pollack’s term, “toxic.” There seems to be a pervasive attitude that boy energy is difficult to manage and innately disruptive. Great sympathy is often expressed for teachers with a high ratio of boys to girls. Mothers with many sons are told, “I don’t know how you do it.” We must change our thinking about “boy energy” and see it as something positive to be harnessed and channeled rather than something innately disruptive.
Boys are especially seen as disruptive to institutional decorum, which is a fancy name for the three rules of school: sit still, be quiet, and do what you’re told. If you follow these, not only you will do very well in school, and there’s a good chance you’ll become a teacher. Teachers like these rules; they make perfect sense, and, generally, teachers were students who followed them. When they start teaching and meet students who can’t follow them, they grow very frustrated.
One of the ideas I like to discuss with teachers is the notion of the “perfect classroom.” For many teachers (and parents) the image is one in which students are all quietly working on a task, facing the same way, not talking. The teacher is either instructing at the front of the room, circulating among the students, or sitting quietly at her own desk. All is peaceful and orderly. As any teacher will tell you, these moments do come, and we relish them (and hope that our principal will walk in at just that moment), but most also know this is an ideal picture. We need to revise our picture of the perfect classroom to include the noisy-busy variety.
There are two kinds of noisy classrooms. The first is the noisy/busy classroom, where students are engaged in a variety of activities alone, in pairs, or in groups. In this classroom students are relaxed, attentive, and learning. There is freedom within boundaries. All the students know and respect those boundaries, and lots is happening within them.
The other kind is the out-of-control classroom where the boundaries are unclear or inconsistently imposed. Here, there is a lot of acting out and a lot of stress. Needless to say, there is not a lot of learning going on. Barbara Coloroso talks about three kinds of families: the Brick Wall family, the Jelly Fish family, and the Backbone family. These three categories can be applied to classrooms as well. The out-of-control classroom is the Jelly Fish variety, and the noisy-busy classroom is the Backbone one. Our concepts about institutional decorum and the need to have all students dutifully on task can lead to what Coloroso might call the Brick Wall classroom. Another name for it is the “tight ship” classroom.
The Brick Wall or tight ship classroom is usually based on fear. These kinds of classrooms may “show” very well, and the Brick Wall teacher is often held up as a model for parents and other teachers, but I would argue that this is not a healthy environment. Fear leads to stress, which leads to the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and inhibits brain activity, among other things.
Not only are students in such a classroom living in fear, they simply do not learn as well. The three rules of school have been taken to the extreme. It is an environment inhospitable to all children, but especially to boys.
From Raising Boys in a New Kind of World