Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 08 2012

Man Up

This is going to be full of gender stereotypes, and I’m going to start off by just saying I’m sorry I’m not sorry. I need to get this out.


We have a couple of “cool” boys who talk, dress, and act like they want to be tough. They would pull it off, too, except that they turn into the world’s biggest babies whenever things don’t go their way. They shut down, they cry, they sulk in corners, they refuse to follow directions, they act out horribly, and they can stay like that for hours. These tantrums can be sparked by the smallest things, but the boys turn them into enormous productions that can ruin classes and can drive me absolutely nuts.


I understand they’re only sixth graders. I understand that their hormones are going crazy. I understand that they might have things in their lives that cause them to lash out or beg for attention. I know all that and have spent all year trying to take it into account. But really, this is different, and it’s way outside how my other immature kids still act like babies. It is intentionally disruptive, beyond annoying, and exhausting…for everyone.


Those tantrums are what makes me ache for male role models in my kids lives. On behavior alone, I bet I could tell you with 90% accuracy which of my boys have active male figures in their households, and these boys aren’t in that group. They need a real Man around, who can model how they’re supposed to act and get them in line when they don’t act appropriately. They need someone to show them how to be gentlemen and how to be scholarly, but who can also yell at them to man up when they start rolling on the floor crying over a detention.


It depresses me when I learn that a group of them have developed what they call “Guy Code”, which is their list of rules for how to act (and obviously involves a secret handshake). It’s sad because I know they completely invented the entire Code by themselves, and even sadder because I’m the one they turned to for feedback on it. For all that I do get along well with boys, I keep them in line decently, and I can tie a tie or throw a football with the best of them, I am not a man. I’ve given a million impromptu lessons on how to behave like a gentleman, but they come from the “I am a woman you respect and this is how I expect to be treated” perspective. They need the “I’m a man you want to be and this is the way we act” perspective, and there is no way I can ever, ever, ever fill that role for these boys.


Sure, we have male teachers at our school, but most of them (with one or two notable exceptions) can barely assign detention. We’re light-years away from inspiring that awed/fearful deep respect that these boys need to have for someone. Just having males around is not enough. Some of these kids are in desperate need of more than that.


Where are those men, and how to I get them to come help raise my boys?

4 Responses

  1. mches


    We have a similar issue at the high school, students who suffer under the delusion that acting hard will make them seem more masculine when they just look like petulant children.

  2. Ms. H

    Having strong male role models work miracles! The students at my school are living proof. The 6th grade boys have almost all done complete 180′s from having 3, strong, male teachers on their team. And it isn’t that they had weak teachers in the past. They actually had some phenomenal teachers, those teachers just happened to be female.

  3. Lucas

    I love this post. It captures a troublesome pattern that’s far too often overlooked in favor of more esoteric and convoluted rationales for the unique problems boys encounter in school. I was fortunate to have one male teacher who was a charismatic leader, a visionary by nature, and a powerful speaker; he had a very dynamic personality. He captivated his audience of us little 8 and 9-year-olds in seconds, and showed us by example how to be morally authoritative, ethically correct, and generous in spirit. He epitomized the gentleman, though he could be crazy and fun at the same time. The vast majority of us would have followed him like the Pied Piper. And so, many years later, he still has a major impact on how I choose to lead my life, and how I relate to other people on a daily basis. But I also had several other male teachers in elementary school whom I respected, to a more limited extent, but never had any particular desire to emulate or look up to as role models. In fact, one of them was totally ineffective as a teacher, and the year I spent in his classroom was extremely counterproductive. The same pattern holds true, at least in my experience, for female teachers. So clearly, as you pointed out, the solution is not just to have more men in our schools; they have to be the right men. It seems to me that boys and girls alike, unless they have been neglected, psychologically damaged, or traumatized in some way, have an innate desire to take the high road, to play the gentleman or the lady, so to speak. The key, as I have come to see it, is for them to have just the right combination of freedom, independence, and meaningful work. A boy will never have more than the outward appearance of a gentleman if his actions are monitored, controlled, and choreographed from morning to night, just as he will probably not grow up to be a gentleman if he has no honorable, awe-inspiring, and yes, perhaps terrifying, men in his life. It seems to me the best way to encourage strong men, who care passionately about the futures of the kids they teach but can also impose and, more importantly, motivate discipline, is to give teachers more freedom, independence, and meaningful work themselves, so they can share those values with young people. A profession riddled with obstacles to the open expression of imagination, creativity, and charisma does not attract nearly as many people who value such qualities as it might otherwise. I realize many teachers do possess these traits (including you, obviously), but frankly the profession as a whole has never been designed to actively encourage completely out-of-the-box approaches. The point, ultimately, is that if you let them be strong, the strong men will come, but if they do not have the opportunity to create a reality based on their compelling visions of what education could and should be, most of them will continue to seek out other jobs where they do enjoy a greater degree of autonomy and, in their estimations at least, can use their talents more constructively. The men whom you want to come help raise your boys were once boys themselves, and many of them never considered school a safe place to develop a sense of who they are as men, so it is a vicious cycle you have to break here.

  4. Katelyn Halpern

    Would it be possible for you to start a guest speaker series, or a skill building series, based around the (covert) idea of bringing strong, up-standing male role models into your classroom? You know, pitch it to the class as “we’re going to learn about how sports strategy is like military strategy” or something, but between you and the guest make it about modeling? If you find the right role model, you might be able to carry it off at no expense to the school.

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