Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stop the Disrespect: How Boys' Negative Attitudes Towards Women Harms their Performance in School

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.

5. Help Boys Find Healthy Outlets for their Emotions: Too often, our society communicates to men and boys that they should suppress their emotions. This leaves men with few outlets to talk about or address emotions like fear, anger, or pain. Teaching boys how to discuss their emotions in a healthy way might keep them from using violence, bullying, or harassment to express their anger or pain. Most teenage bullies/harassers aren't monsters; they are only frightened, nervous children who are going through enormous physical and emotional changes. Without the social/emotional skills to address their intense emotions, they can easily become lost on a destructive path.

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.


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  2. yes of course its the individual boys fault for not being able to adjust to the school system when its a clear problem across the board with young boys. When I was a child I was hated by most of my teachers. Not because I was a rotten kid or not emotionally aware. It's because I was fidgety all the time. Lots of energy, got picked on on a daily basis and was told not to hit back AND not to be a tatle tale. I was left with limited to no options in the school system and thus learned to hate the school system as a whole. There were times in middle school once all the damage was done by the teachers and fellow students I wish I could have shot up a school or stepped in front of a truck. It was the love of my mother that kept me going. I was taught to respect women growing up and all I wanted to do was please the teachers but because of difficulties with other students and not being able to sit still as well as not clearly being told what was wanted of me other than "Sit still and shut up" I was labelled a trouble student. Quite frankly the way I was treated by my female teachers growing up helped create a chip on my shoulder towards women and feminism. Once I got to college however I enjoyed my time much more but in the elementary school system I feel the problem lies in teachers more wanting an easy day not dealing with the hyperness some kids can bring rather than wanting to actually help ALL of their students learn.

    Quite frankly based on your artical here it sounds like you believe females to be the sole victim. And honestly you probably would have hated me in middle school. By then I was acting out violently. Not towards other students mind you. I would smash my head off of lockers and desks. Punch lockers etc etc etc. I had a female middle school teacher once have a friend of mine hand in an assignment then said outloud to the girls in the front row "I bet this is a failure." Then soon followed up by making fun of him for not showering often enough, when his family couldnt afford shampoo as often. She was clearly anti male and I will never forget her. To this day I wish I could punch her in the face but I clearly know this is wrong and would never do such a thing. I believe part of the problems you experience with your male students can more be attributed to the boys being sent out every night to get out of their parents hair and thus raising themselves. Something I have seen somewhat rampant in lower income neighbourhoods. Infact, in middle school a couple of my worst tormentors were girls. They were the nastiest with words. The mental breakdown was by them, this physical by boys. Regardless though I was offered no help in the classroom to stop it. The best I got was a male guidance counsellor who had very little authority and was unable to actually do anything for me but listen.

    1. I think if you look back at my post, you'll see that I do not hate men or boys. In fact, I think that their poor performance and behavior in school is something that we should all be concerned about, not only because of the devastating effects it has on female teachers and students, but because it has terrible repercussions for the boys themselves. I'm glad to head that you were able to go to college, but many of the boys I taught were so disruptive that they had a hard time learning anything in class, and without a good education they can get stuck in a cycle of poverty.

      I've never said teachers are perfect, and I'm sorry if one was cruel to your friend. No student should ever be humiliated in this way. When I taught school, I was deeply concerned about bullying, whether the bullies or victims were male or female. I reported every incident I could, called parents, had conferences with the school counselors, and generally used whatever tools I had at my disposal to stop bullying. Unfortunately, none of those tools seemed very effective, but that's another post.

      I'm glad to know that you had a male counselor who helped you. In fact, my top method of helping boys learn to respect women and succeed in school, is making sure we have more positive male role models.

      I think your experiences show that many young men can find their way out of this destructive cycle, and that's wonderful for them and for the women in their lives.

  3. " their negative attitudes towards women or people of other races. " The lack of attention to me as a young kid who was bullied by girls and educated in a family that would "respect women" at all costs, made me often less motivated about school and even consider suicide. Why don't you just say "their negative prejudices towards OTHERS? Why do you have to perpetuate a feminist ideology in which only women and minorities are victims? See?

  4. Violence, discrimination, and disrespect towards women is a serious problem. I am a proud feminist. I certainly don't think anyone, male or female, should be bullied, but that does not mean there isn't a serious problem with how women are treated in our society. When boys are disrespectful and rude to female teachers, their attitudes keep them from learning effectively. That is a terrible problem, not only for female teachers, but for male students! I don't see how treating women with respect might cause you to consider suicide--would bullying women really make you feel better about yourself? If the only way you can make yourself feel special is by bullying, harassing, or disrespecting women, then I think you have a very toxic and destructive idea of what it means to be a man. Perhaps if you examined yourself, and really thought about the source of your problems, you'd see that.

  5. I remember that at primary school I had no problem with any of my teachers - all were female, though the headmaster was male. Learning was generally simple and straightforward - you respected the teacher because they were the teacher, gender simply didn't come into it. I should add that my school years began just after the abolition of the cane, so perhaps there was some lingering psychological factor of "don;t mess with teachers".

    At secondary school it was different - looking back, there was an undercurrent of left wing and feminist influence which I couldn't help but turn my nose up at. Not in all subjects - I got on fine with my biology teachers who were female because, again, they just taught the subject, gender didn't come into it. Similar my female German teachers.

    But my English teacher was the sort who would set us essays like "write an essay about your relationship with your mother", wax lyrical about the wonders of motherhood and tried to make us believe there was subversive feminist sub text in "the taming of the shrew". What sort of young man, going through puberty and growing into his male identity, is not going to be a bit contemptuous of this sort of thing?

    I''m not the only one to suggest that the feminisation of education is harming boys' achievements - which is not the same as saying there is an excuse to disrespect women teachers when they're doing a good job. Rather, I am saying that boys should not be pressed towards thinking or acting like girls, because for the majority of typical boys this feels instinctively unnatural.

    To quote psychologist Michael Thompson. "Girl behavior is the gold standard in schools,boys are treated like defective girls.”. Unfortunately, it rings very true.

    We need to recognise that there are many ways to grow up as a well adjusted member of society, and one of these is the traditional well mannered but definitely masculine type of male.