In a recent article in Time, Erika Christakis asks "Do Teachers Really Discriminate Against Boys?" Evidence shows that teachers actually do not discriminate against boys when they show the same enthusiasm for learning and good behavior that girls do, but that boys who misbehave are graded more harshly. Though Christakis concludes that the problem might lie in teachers' misunderstanding of active, kinesthetic learning styles, I wonder if the true problem is much deeper. It's been my experience that many boys are not taught to show respect to women, and since most of their teachers are women, this lack of respect leads boys to behave negatively in the classroom. If we want to improve boys' school performance, teaching them to respect women is crucial.
I taught eighth grade language arts in a poverty-stricken, almost entirely minority middle school in Dallas ISD. While my experiences in the school could constitute an entire book worth of analysis, the short version is, I was miserable, and though I tried my best to help my students learn, it often felt like the odds against them (and me) were overwhelming. One of the greatest obstacles was the constant bad behavior, especially from boys. It's true that a lot of the ordinary misbehavior was typical restless teenager problems--talking to much and goofing off in class--but the worst of it had a far darker and uglier aspect. Male students drew sexual pictures of me in their books, with extremely explicit taglines referring to me by name. Other students (mostly male) screamed curse words at me in class. Of course, I was not the only target of their attacks. One male bully took off his belt in my class and used it to hit one of my female students. He spent one day in ISS before he was back in my class, bullying and harming other students. I saw similar behavior in the boys who viciously bullied New York bus monitor Karen Klein.
The constant disrespect directed at me by male students was one of the most degrading and dehumanizing aspects of my job. Essentially, their disrespect made it enormously difficult for me to manage my class, much less teach students what they needed to learn. I do not think that I was solely to blame for my experiences being sexually harassed by my own students, although the administrators at my school frequently blamed me. They refused to take bullying or sexual harassment seriously, whether it effected students or teachers. This corrosive environment leaves female students and teachers vulnerable to abuses, and keeps boys from getting the guidance and help they need to improve their lives. I strongly believe that intervening to protect the victims of harassment, while educating young men to treat women with respect can help undo a vicious cycle. How can young women learn when they are so often subjected to such derogatory treatment? How can young men learn when they have so much contempt for the women who try to teach them?
I'm not suggesting that simply teaching boys to respect women is the only solution, but if we don't address the severe behavioral problems so many impoverished boys develop, then we will inhibit their learning as well as their social development.
So what can we do to improve boys' attitudes towards women? I have several suggestions.
1. Positive Male Role Models Who Show Respect for Women: I think some of the best people to correct boys' destructive attitudes are positive male role models. When one of my students yelled curse words at me on the playground, a male teacher he respected called him out on his behavior. That man told him how inappropriate and rude his behavior was, and criticized him for behaving that way towards a female teacher. I saw an immediate improvement in that boy's attitude. Once an older man told him to show respect, a light went on in his head. He needed that role model to guide his behavior. Likewise, when fathers, not just mothers, showed up to parent teacher conferences, they were often very influential on their sons. I remember a dramatic change in one boy's behavior after his father told him to show respect for me. Professions like teaching tend to be female-dominated, while engineering is male-dominated. Perhaps balancing things in those professions, with more women becoming engineers and more men becoming teachers, will help give both boys and girls more positive inspiration.
2. Take Sexual Harassment/Bullying Seriously: Even more than the behavior of the boys, I was deeply disturbed by the reactions of the administration at my school. Instead of addressing the serious behavioral problems of the boys, they blamed me for not controlling them. They steadfastly refused to address severe bullying as well (after several students were physically injured by bullying at our school, I sent a letter to the school board about the problems), which I saw as connected to the epidemic of destructive behavior. It is vital that schools create a culture of respect, and that means addressing bullying or sexual harassment via positive interventions like education, and if necessary, disciplinary actions or police involvement. No student should be allowed to bully and terrorize other students or teachers.
3. Encourage Positive Changes in Popular Culture: When boys lack positive male role models, they often turn to pop culture influences. Yet as anyone paying attention to pop culture knows, it is rife with misogyny and disrespectful attitudes to women. Thus one way to improve boys' attitudes towards women might be to encourage them to play video games, or watch TV, or listen to music with positive messages, and limit their exposure to media that shows disrespect towards women. Parents should make sure that their sons are not consuming media that might damage their perceptions of women.
4. Talk about Gender Issues in School: Many teachers are hesitant to discuss sensitive issues like racism or sexism in class. But I think it's important to directly confront issues like these. An honest discussion of how hurtful and destructive stereotypes can be might help these boys (or girls, for that matter) confront their negative attitudes towards women or people of other races.
In her article, Christakis suggest that schools should adjust themselves to become more friendly to boys, but perhaps the truth is that we need to teach boys to be friendlier to school. If we show them how to find more emotional stability, positive role models, and healthy, respectful attitudes towards women, boys will likely have a dramatically easier time in school.