Militant Tenderness: Modelling Positive Behaviours in Boys.

A primary school teacher recently got in touch to tell me that he spent yesterday ‘dealing with five 10 year olds hell bent on proving their masculinity’ because one of these boys had questioned another’s masculine credentials. This same teacher went on to explain that these boys ‘can’t occupy themselves anymore with anything that isn’t fighting.’

It’s a depressing state of affairs, and whilst I’m not sure where I stand on the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’, I certainly agree that there is a problem with certain elements of masculinity as a construct. Namely, the way it can point large numbers of men towards a life of physical and sexual violence, aggressive posturing and emotional repression.

Although I’m sceptical of ‘toxic masculinity’ as a phrase, one phrase I do like is ‘tender masculinity’ as discussed in this excellent blog post by Terra Loire. According to Loire, Tender Masculinity is ‘a necessary antidote to our media portrayals of men’ as either hyper-macho meatheads or incompetent buffoons. Loire suggests that if you ask the following questions of a man, and can answer in the affirmative, then he embodies tender masculinity:

• Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?

• Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?

• Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?

• Does he commit to personal growth?

• Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?

• Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for instance, can he express affection for male friends without making a gay joke?

Lots of people contact me regularly and ask for advice on how they can combat what they deem to be ‘toxic masculinity’. My answer is this: ‘Militant Tenderness’. Militant tenderness refers to the act of relentlessly and doggedly modelling a masculinity which values kindness, vulnerability and love over the power, violence, and emotional mutism which makes up the toxic masculinity that the media-in all its forms-seems so determined to instill amongst our young people.

So, what does militant tenderness look like? In my classroom it looks like this:

1. Relentless politeness at all times, wherever possible.

I always say please and thank you, at all times. When people answer the register, “Yes Sir”, I say “Thank You.” When guests come and observe my lessons, I thank them for visiting as they leave. When a child thanks me at the end of the lesson, I’ll say, “Thanks for saying thanks! It means a lot.” Because it does mean a lot. Saying please and thank you shows that you are grateful for everything; that you don’t take anything for granted and that you don’t feel entitled. One of the problems of toxic masculinity is misguided feelings of entitlement. By saying please and thank you, as often as the opportunity presents itself to do so, I am showing boys that I respect people, and I value their respect for me. Nothing is assumed. I am owed nothing because I am a man. I am owed something because I am kind.

2. Relentless honesty, at all times, wherever possible.

I try to be as honest as I can with students when it comes to my emotions. Whilst I would never discuss my personal life in any depth, I will openly discuss the feelings and emotions that arise in the context of what’s being studied or discussed in the classroom. If a poem makes me very sad, I’ll tell the class. If a kid makes me look at something in a new and exciting way, I’ll express my childish delight. And, if a kid does a piece of work that’s absolutely mind-blowing, to the point where it makes my heart swell with pride, and my eyes with tears, I’ll acknowledge that fact, frankly and openly. In fact, I’ll intentionally draw the class’s attention to it. I’ll say: “That’s making me well up with pride, that”, and face them, smiling and watery eyed.

I’ll be open about the way topics affect me and if appropriate, I’ll attempt to explain why they affect me that way. A good exemplification of this is when I read the ending of ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Inevitably, as I read the final pages, my voice will falter and waiver with emotion. I don’t try to hide this fact and when the kids notice it, and ask me why I am so affected by the ending of the book I’ll explain to them that I see in Lennie and George, the closeness I feel to my brothers and this informs my emotional response to the end of the novel.

Sometimes honesty can be something as simple as, ‘I like your haircut Jack’, or ‘Ah, it’s good to see you lot this morning.’ The fact is, as a teacher, I need to show my students that it’s okay for a man to feel and to want to express those feelings. Do this whenever you can.

3. Relentless critique of negative aspects of masculinity

Often, I’ll take the time out to poke light-hearted fun at masculine behaviours I believe to be undesirable. Humour comes in handy here. I’ve got a number of go-to routines with this one, but here’s an example the kids always laugh along with.

Me: Nice haircut Jack

Jack: Thanks

Me: Sorry Jack. Didn’t mean to embarrass you. Number one rule of teacher training is ‘never draw attention to a kid by complimenting them’. Thing is Jack, I’ve got no hair, and you have, and I like your haircut. So I’m going to compliment you, right? Why wouldn’t I? Isn’t it weird how some men can’t ever just compliment each other? Last week, I bought a new jacket. And I went to meet my friends in a place that definitely wasn’t a pub, and as I’m standing there with me mates, enjoying a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, I realise that all my mates are looking at me jacket. And I’m looking at them looking at me jacket. And not one of ‘em says anything! I know they like my jacket. I know they think I look good in my jacket- I mean, how could they not? But not one of them says anything! So we’re in this ridiculous situation where they know that I know that they know how good I look and we all just stand there not saying anything. Until someone breaks the silence with “So…er…football.” I’ve never understood it! If there’s the opportunity to compliment somebody, compliment them! Jeeez….

It makes me cringe, seeing this written out. But the fact is, once upon a time, this was off the cuff. But after seeing the boys in that class agree with me, and the positive impact it had on the way that it had on their behaviour (they began to actually be nice to each other openly), it became a story I fine-tuned and worked on. Find your opportunities to critique masculinity, come up with a personal story of your own to which the kids can relate, and perfect it.

My critique of masculinity isn’t always so light-hearted. At times there are situations when something needs to be seriously addressed. This year, I took considerable time to criticise Mercutio and Tybalt’s masculine posturing, that results in both their deaths.

I’ve also scrutinised-and expressed my outright disgust- at the following passage from A Christmas Carol:

She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty. With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face; a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed–as no doubt it was; all kinds of good little dots about her chin, that melted into one another when she laughed; and the sunniest pair of eyes you ever saw in any little creature’s head.

And this one from Gerald Croft in An Inspector Calls:

She was very pretty…She looked young and fresh and charming

The Dickens case is an interesting one. It demonstrates that all men, however great, are products of a sexist masculinity that needs to be interrogated. What’s key is that students see me – a man- interrogate it.

On the flipside, I have also spent considerable time praising Romeo for his emotional honesty, something which I have written about here. I’m sure that many books, at primary school, contain many outdated masculine stereotypes, but also examples of a new kind of masculinity which is tender. Criticise the former, and praise the latter relentlessly. Constantly.

4. Relentless attention to the language I’m using.

There was probably a time when the anecdotes and questions I used to illuminate a concept were heteronormative. For example, in a lesson on love poetry, I might have asked, “Why might a man write his girlfriend a sonnet?” Now, for everytime I’ll ask that question, I’ll ask another that is homonormative. For example, “Why might a man write his boyfriend a sonnet?”

One of the many foundations upon which toxic masculinity is built upon is homophobia. I want to remove that foundation and I can only do that by chipping away at it as often as possible. Everytime I use homonormative pronouns in the classroom, I am not only chipping away at normalised homophobia, but also demonstrating that I am a man who is tolerant and empathic.

5. Relentless acknowledgement of my own faults.

There are times when I’ve made mistakes and reprimanded a child who didn’t deserve it. There are also times when I’ve found myself engaged in childish tit-for-tat arguments with a student. Every time I falter in this way, I hold my hands up and admit my wrong-doing. If I’ve told a kid off, and been a little too harsh, I’ll apologise to them, directly. If the student was unfairly admonished in front of the whole class, then I’ll apologise to that student in front of the whole class. Boys need to see that men can get it wrong sometimes. But more than this, they need to see that it’s okay to say sorry because saying sorry means I care about people’s feelings.

6. Relentless attention to negative masculine behaviours

It’s tiring at times, but necessary. Every single time a student uses the word ‘gay’ pejoratively; every time a student comments negatively about the way a woman looks; every time a student mocks another student for exhibiting behaviours he considers to be feminine and therefore undesirable. I call them out on it. Relentlessly.

8 Things School INSET can learn from Edu-Conferences

INSET days are often dreadful. An over-paid consultant, who knows nothing about you, your school or teaching for that matter, comes in and tells you how brilliant he or she thinks you all are, before going on to tell you lots and lots and lots about what they do and a little bit about what you should be doing. Then, later on, you are split into groups where you are forced to work with staff you don’t normally work with (Note-there’s normally a good reason for that) as you do some useless mind-mapping exercise in which you come up with ideas about ‘engaging students’ or, even worse, ‘behaviour strategies.’

I know all this because teachers are keen to vocalise their disdain for the INSET they are provided with, in the form of tortured scribblings (scrawled across the back of print-out of a presentation on last year’s progress data), or in the form of venomous rants offered up on the way to the free ham sandwiches.

And yet, in spite of the vitriol invoked by school-centred INSET days, teachers up and down the country are taking the time out of their weekends to attend educational conferences such as #researchED, #TLT, #SASFE, and #NorthernRocks on a Saturday. And they’re not even being paid for it. Nor offered days off in lieu. So, what is it that has teachers attending these conferences in droves when they could be with their kids, or at the football, or in the pub? And what can schools learn from these conferences to improve their INSET provision? Funny you should ask. Because I’ve been thinking about it…

1. Provide Refreshments

It needn’t be anything fancy, but tea, coffee, and slightly more croissants than you think you’ll need will go a long way to making staff feel positive about the day ahead. Teachers like free stuff. Setting them up with a nice breakfast (it’s croissants, so call it ‘continental’) and they’ll feel valued and satisfied. Their brains will be well fuelled and ready to go too.

2. Get a Decent Keynote

If you can help it, don’t spend money on an external speaker. After all, you’ve got a lot of croissants to buy. You might be able to find a big shot edu-tweeter who’ll do it for free (they can be clever and generous, that lot), but failing that, look to your own staff. I’m absolutely dumbfounded by the amount of INSET days in which school leaders look to external ‘expert’ speakers, whilst completely neglecting the expertise of their own staff. In fact, it’s this neglect that goes some way to explaining why INSET provision is so dire: if school leaders don’t engage with the expertise of those at the chalk face, how can they even expect to develop this expertise adequately?

The keynote speech should be informative, research informed and controversial. Wry comments about educational policy always go down well. And, when it comes to looking to someone to be the keynote speaker…

3. Take a chance on someone.

A school that uses teachers on the ground to run their INSET days, rather than the usual members of SLT, makes a powerful statement: ‘This INSET is for you. What you say, think, and do, in our school matters more than anything else.’ There may be someone in Maths who’s an expert in memory; someone in Science who knows loads about setting; someone in DT who can bang on for days about dual-coding. Use these people. School leaders should put time into developing these people, who may be nervous, shy, or even reluctant, as speakers. Show them that you value what they have to say, by helping them to say it.

4. Offer a range of optional sessions.

Giving teachers options will give them the satisfaction that autonomy brings. Giving teachers the volition to choose their own sessions means that they can take control over their own development. It also means they’re less likely to feel that they’ve been subjected to endure training which has little relevance to them. I think it’s reasonable to assume that many schools can afford to run a model that offers 3 sets of 2 sessions in a day. Sessions should cover a range of topics. Try not to make sessions too school or class specific. A lot of the value in Saturday edu-conferences comes from the fact that teachers are required to think about how what they’ve heard might have to be adapted to their own context. After all, ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (see next point) and teachers who are made to think about the sessions they’ve been to, will remember what they’ve heard, for longer.

5. Include the ‘memory is the residue of thought’ quotation from Daniel Willingham in at least one of the presentations.

6. Provide loads of breaks

Human capacity for attention is limited, and whilst teacher’s often take this into account when catering for students, rarely is it applied to themselves. I’ve sat through INSET sessions lasting two hours, without a break. At education conferences loads of time is put aside to give people the time they need to pee, poo, and ponder. Schools should afford staff this time, too.

7. Reject formality.

One of the reasons education conferences are so brilliant, is that they reject the stuffy formality that is often the feature of school INSET days. Conferences like #researchEd, #TLT and #SASFE encourage staff to respond to talks on Twitter as they happen using ‘the hashtag.’ Talk hashtags encourage delegates to engage with the material and also provide speaker’s with useful feedback, and new arguments to consider. They also enable the conversation to continue beyond the session, which is important as often, questions arise, long after the valuable Q and A session.

At #southernrocks18 I was impressed by the organisers’ insistence that delegates move between sessions as and when they see fit. Often, when two sessions run alongside each other, delegates relish the opportunity of switching between the two, half-way through, without worrying about causing offence. Of course, speakers have to buy into this, but actually, particularly when speakers are nervous, this informal approach can be welcome.

8.Go to the pub afterwards

The best conference round ups don’t happen in the main hall. They happen in places where alcohol is served. A visit to the pub allows speakers to decompress, and delegates to ask questions they previously felt too shy to ask. And a pint is always nice after an excellent day’s work.