Social Media as Catharsis

I’ve been going through some stuff.

For me, as for many men and women all over the world, every day is a battle, of varying degrees of violence (sometimes depending on the weather, but usually depending on the quantity of ‘goodness’ that I can recognise in the world), with the tag-team of anxiety and insecurity who sit, quite comfortably, alongside the devil on my shoulders.

But it’s okay, because I have Twitter and I have my blog.

Twitter is catharsis for me; it’s a safe space where I can air my personal grievances with the profession I adore, and so long as I don’t mention people or individuals by name, and I’m not spiteful, nobody gets hurt. 

For me, that’s what wins the preferred debate of choice for English Writing exams everywhere:

‘Should social media be banned?’

 I recognise all the problems with social media: it exposes kids to violence and sex and bullying, and, it’s a minefield as far as personal safety is concerned. If I had my way it’d be banned, were it not for one thing: the one thing that makes social media an absolute necessity for me, is the thought of all those quiet kids I grew up with, when I was at school, who, although never uttering a word throughout the five years of secondary school, would surprise me every night with their MSN messenger (look it up) status updates in which they lay bare their emotions: there were proclamations of love for people they never had a chance with; there were dark hints at suicide; there were verbal jabs thrown with defiance at bullies, and there were joyful explosions of emotional insight into lives which, were it not for social media, I’d assumed were devoid of any feeling whatsoever. Simply because these kids never actually spoke. 

Social media allows people to speak where otherwise they may feel unable to do so. Thanks to social media, people don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves anymore; they’re wearing them on their screens. And that’s a good thing. Because, when we talk about the things that hurt us or make us angry and when we talk about the things that make us feel good or make us tingle with excitement, we are expressing our humanity. Our human-ness. People stand up and listen to that. And we all want to be listened to.

For a number of personal reasons, I refuse to take anti-depressants. But, as an insight into some of the stuff I’m dealing with, here’s a few extracts from the endless amount of blog posts I write, which never get published, mainly because the act of writing about how I feel acts as catharsis. That is, I write down how I feel, and I feel better: 

Yesterday, a series of unfortunate events conspired to ensure that Twitter is no longer a safe space to vent about my problems. And that scares the shit out of me. Because, in a complete subversion of what is deemed noble and worthy in today’s Reality TV world, I’m not the kind of person who enjoys ‘telling it to their face’ or just ‘saying how I really feel.’ In fact, a childhood of more than ordinary amounts of violence means that even a raised voice makes my skin prickle, my hands sweat, and my heart beat faster than an angry wasp inside a jar.

This blog post, which I will publish, is a confession of my own weakness, but also a reminder: a reminder that even dickheads struggle and that the tendency for some to whine and moan on social media, whilst annoying, may be necessary. Please think about that. 

Advertisements

Masculinity and Violence in Schools. 

There has been violence in my life.

Whilst there have been moments of violence of which I am undoubtedly ashamed, there have been a few moments of violence of which I am most certainly proud. The pride that I feel when recalling these moments, or when relating them to others, hinges on the fact that these moments of violence mirrored the social narrative of masculine violence imposed upon all men from birth: the narrative where the bad guy loses and the good guy wins. 

However, the moment of violence which I think about every single day, is the moment of violence where there was no violence. 

When she was three months old, I took my daughter for a walk. Holding her in my arms (‘real men’ eschew slings) I was caught off guard when I turned a corner and saw two men, in their early twenties, threatening an old man who had accidentally bumped into them as he posted a letter. Naturally, I intervened and told the blokes to leave the man alone. What I hadn’t counted on, was that the baby held in my arms, rendered any advantage I had over the blokes-in terms of sizeand general scariness- null and void. 

“Whatcha gonna do about it big ears?”

Turns out, I was going to do absolutely nothing about it. The feeling that stands out most vividly in the memory of the event is a prickliness. Literally, I felt my skin prickle. I went very warm, and then my armpits started to sweat. And I felt scared. Absolutely terrified. So, holding my baby in my arms, I turned, and walked away. Granted, I checked (when I was some distance away) to see if they’d left the man alone (and they had), but the simple fact was this: I walked away. I’d seen two twats threaten an old man and I just let it happen. I walked away.

This knowledge- the knowledge that I walked away- plagues me every day with a feeling of shame that hasn’t relented, despite the 9 months that have passed since the occurrence of the event. Because, despite my conscious attempts to repeatedly challenge and question outdated stereotypes of masculinity, the whole alpha male thing is a big part of who I am. And yet now, when I’m in the pub, or at the football, or talking with the lads, there’s always a part of my mind saying, “This ain’t you. You ain’t real. You walked away.”

However, though I think about this day, every day, there’s a reason the shame doesn’t eat me up and that is, I can rationalise it. The whole thing. Because, I am aware of the biological and social conditions imposed upon me from birth that lead me to feel this shame. 

Because of this knowledge, I know, deep down, that walking away, although it may make me feel ashamed, is not a shameful act. 

Last year, in Britain, 76% of violent crimes were committed by men. In schools, boys are three times more likely than girls to receive permanent exclusions and 19% of these exclusions are down to violent behaviour’s. In special schools that number is closer to 50%. 

Violence is a largely male issue.

Society primes men for battle: whether it be the toy soldiers or the camouflage duvet sets or the gangster rap or the metaphors employed by the back pages of the newspapers, society primes men to be violent.

Earlier on, I admitted to feeling pride in some of the violence which I mentioned had occurred in my life. Some of you may have been repulsed by this revelation-or, let’s be blunt- this bragging. But the fact is, I was showing off, and I am proud of these moments of violence because, in some of the circles in which I associate, stories of violence are impressions. For some of the people I know,  stories of kebab shop fights and schoolyard scuffles reek of honour and power and loyalty in much the same way as Homer’s Iliad does for the generations who have studied it. 

I understand the reasons I walked away: preservation. Preservation of the one person I love more than anything- my baby daughter. I realise my shame may seem immature to you, but still, there is not a hope in hell that I could ever let the boys down the pub know about the time I walked away.

It strikes me that in most schools, violence is dealt with reactively. That is, violence occurs and then it is sanctioned. There may be a reintegration meeting, or a ‘restorative conversation’, but even then, the focus is on feelings and emotions prior to-and after- the violence, rather than the difficult topic of the violence itself: “So Sam, didn’t it feel great to actually just smack someone who bullies you?” Never going to happen. 

I believe that schools need to start taking a proactive response to male violence. I believe that a systematic programme of study, designed, facilitated and led from a pastoral position of responsibility, that aims to make boys aware of the biological (not so much) and social (bloody loads) conditions that prime them for violence may go some way to giving our boys the strength and power it takes to protect themselves not just from the force of the fist, but from the sucker-punch of society. 

I recently spoke on the phone to someone from Great Men, a charity that recently featured in The Times newspaper under the headline, ‘Can you teach teenage boys to be decent young men?’ The charity goes into schools and speaks to boys about violence, sex, and that other topic people are so reluctant to talk to boys about: emotions. To me, this sounds great. Unfortunately, what with the project being in its early stages, reliable data on the effectiveness of the intervention is as of yet unavailable. 

It should work though, right? If I know how an engine works, I am more able to adjust and repair a faulty one. If I know how I work- as a male- if I know how biology and society seems determined for me to work, I am more able to adjust myself to avoid my own faults, one of which seems to be (76% remember) a predisposition towards violence. 

I envisage a pastorally directed system of Explanation, Reflection, and Expression (ERE): boys have an important part of their masculinity explained to them (testosterone myth; social selection theory; gender socialisation theory). Then, during reflection time, questions are asked that encourage boys to reflect on this topic: What do you think about the belief that there’s a hormone in you that makes you more likely to be violent than girls? Are you stronger than your hormones? What do you think about the fact that teachers at primary school have lower expectations of boys than girls? Finally, during the Expression phase, boys are encouraged to comment on any aspect of the day’s session.

Before I finish, I want to talk about walking away. When a boy walks away from a fight in Schools it’s usually ignored. After all, of some one walks away from a fight there’s been no fight and so teachers don’t hear about it. In the rare instances when teachers do hear about someone having walked away from a fight, we commend the boy for having done so. What I am sure we are absolutely not doing, is preparing those boys who walk away for the feelings of humiliation and shame that may arise out of having done so. 

Failure to live up to social expectations of masculinity- this expectation that men should be fighters, fighters who win- is having a devastating impact. 76% of suicides in Europe are committed by men. Because of this, we need to find the boys who walk away and we need to encourage them to talk about the fact that they have done so and we need to be straight with them: walking away won’t always (in my experience, rarely) make you feel like ‘the better man.’ A concentrated pastoral effort needs to go into encouraging boys to confront these feelings and deal with them.

The shame and anger that I feel, as a result of walking away from those two guys attacking the old man, are wounds. They are wounds that bleed and the blood from these wounds covers a little part of my day, every day. 

But this is not my fault, this shame. It is the fault of outdated social expectations. And, because of this, I walk on.

Bloody, but unbowed. 


The Greatest Teaching Moment of my Life

Sir. I know sometimes I mess around. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn. Please keep trying with me. 

So reads the scribbled note that was pushed under the door of my office, one week into starting my new job. The author of this note  wasn’t lying. His name is Aaron, he’s in Year 8,  and, when he wants to, he can mess around. Last term, he wasn’t having any of it. It was like he’d given up.

It was with some trepidation then, that for Aaron’s class, I began this half term by ditching my planned unit on Poetry from Other Cultures (Ugh! Ugh! Ugh!), opting instead for a Poetry by Heart unit I’ve just started designing in preparation for next September. The unit aims to develop students ability to memorise information and is focused wholly on William Ernest Henley’s Invictus. The plan is that the whole class will know the whole poem off by heart within 4 weeks.

Aaron was fascinated by the story behind the poem- the poet’s impoverished childhood and struggle with tuberculosis; Mandela’s use of the poem to keep him sane and focused during his 27 year incarceration on Robben Island. After the first lesson, Aaron took the poem home so he could learn more. As did his best friend, Jacob. 

And then this happened…

Yesterday, during form time, I found Aaron and Jacob in the library. They normally come to me to read during this time but I told them the Head teacher had just had a pop about the slovenly state of my classroom (fully justified- I care little for classroom displays and my room is reflective of that) and asked if they’d come and help me tidy it up. They obliged, but asked if they could recite Invictus to me and an amazing TA who was also in the library, first. And so, I watched as both Aaron and Jacob, the ‘cheeky chappies’ with endless codes after their names on endless excel spread sheets, recited, word perfectly, the first three stanzas of Invictus. The TA and I were stunned but so was Lucas. Lucas? 

Lucas, it’s fair to say, is a bit like Aaron and Jacob. A nice boy for whom education and being quiet and focused in class, isn’t always the number one priority. I don’t teach Lucas, but I knew his name within a day of starting at my new school. He’s one of those kids.

“Sir, can you teach me that poem too?”

Of course I could, I told him, and so Aaron, Jacob, and now Lucas, trudged over to my classroom to tidy up and recite Victorian poetry. 

As we tidied up my classroom, Aaron, Jacob and I played a game. We’d recite alternate words of the poem. Like so:

Aaron: “Out”

Me: “Of”

Jacob: “The”

Aaron: “Night”

Me: “That”

And so on. Anyway, Lucas is sitting there, watching all this, utterly impressed. I’d go as far to say enchanted. Then, he rushes out of the room. Within a few seconds, he’s back, sheepishly pushing his English book under my nose. 

“I wrote a poem sir. Can you read it?”

And this is the where the best moment of my teaching career happens. It’s etched on my brain now; I can’t forget it. Before I go on, you should know that Lucas struggles big time with English. He really struggles. But, thanks to the amazing work of the TA I mentioned earlier, and an amazing English teacher who is far more patient than I could ever hope to be, he can get stuff done.

Anyway, here’s the moment. I’ll write it in italics and if you could just play some inspirational music, preferably of the classical variety, in your mind as you read it, that’d be great:

I look down at the page and Lucas’ poem runs thus: 

People enjoying the evening,

Just wanting to enjoy the beautiful bridge.

Then, a squeal of rubber tyres on Tarmac destroys everything,

Men get out and stab people in the back,

Why can’t people just enjoy their lives?’

I’m welling up, but I almost begin to cry as I look up from my reading and see this:

Jacob painstakingly trying to align my tables so that they’re straight, his lips murmuring the words of Invictus as he does so.

Aaron, now sat down, pouring over the fourth and final stanza of the poem, closing his eyes as he attempts to memorise it.

Lucas’ face, looking up at me in earnest, desperate to know what I think of his poem. 

That was the greatest moment of my teaching career. That snapshot just there: Lucas’ poem, Jacob’s efforts to both help me and impress me, and Aaron’s absolute determination to crack that poem.

Later that day, as I was calling the parents of these kids, to tell them how impressed I was, an email popped up on my screen, from the head:

‘Dear Mr Pinkett.

I just thought I’d let you know that after school today, as I was having a meeting with the CEO of the academy chain, Aaron in Year 8 barged into my office and recited the whole of Invictus to us both. It was word perfect and it was beautiful. It’s made my week.’

For me, the most impressive thing, and the thing that makes me proud, isn’t that Aaron remembers the poem. It’s the fact that he’s proud of remembering the poem.

On paper, Aaron isn’t the first kid you’d think of when asked to name a kid who is passionate about learning poetry off by heart. Which, I guess, is fitting. Because, as Aaron showed me this week, what does paper mean, when you have heart? 

Selling Resources (No Clickbait)

Yesterday I waded into the ‘Selling Resources’ discussion and, as tends to happen with me, I lacked the articulacy and the eloquence to defend my stance as people criticised my viewpoint, all of which left me feeling a bit shite. Here’s an attempt at defending myself. 

Here’s what happened.

Yesterday, I tweeted a link to James Theo’s article, which I said was excellent. I then posted a follow up article, written by me, which I said was a rejoinder to James’ argument. His argument, not his original article.

Having re-read my article, it makes me cringe slightly. It’s poorly written, too hypothetical and perhaps just a tad sentimental. However, it’s a personal choice  of mine, to always keep the blog posts I’ve written as they were originally written: it is with joy that I compare early blogs from my favourite bloggers, with their more recent posts: the difference in tone, style, and philosophy is a powerful mapping of a person’s intellectual and stylistic development. 

What I’d like to do here, is restate my stance on the selling resources debate as clearly as I am able, to clear up any misunderstandings, but also to address the commonly held view that I am simply being deliberately provocative.

Here it is:

  1. I’ve read James Theo’s blog regarding the selling of resources, and I stand by his viewpoints. I agree with every single point he makes.
  2. I’m particularly outraged at the fact people are selling other people’s resources as their own, and making money from this. 
  3. And yet, in spite of all this, I still think selling resources is okay. 
  4. The reason I think selling resources is okay, and it’s the reason that overrides all of the points James Theo makes in his blog post is a simple one:

For some people who need it, it’s an easy way to make money. 

A friend of mine is a single parent teacher. She’s crippled by depression, mainly because she struggles to pay rent, and she’s putting two kids through University. This friend would never sell resources online. She’s ideologically opposed to the whole thing. And yet, would I begrudge her selling a few PowerPoints for a few quid just to ease the financial burden I know she feels? Of course not. In fact, I wish she’d do it. 

A tweet in which I stated that the problem was with the buyers (whom I referred to as ‘stupid’ later on) also incurred some wrath in some quarters. I was wrong to call them ‘stupid’ and I apologise for any offence caused. However, I’d like to explain my thinking on this:

Firstly, I’ve always been sceptical of teachers selling resources. I once wrote this. The reason I’m against it is, is that in my experience (my own personal experience-nothing else) the teaching that relies on other people’s resources, is the worst kind of teaching. To those who think I’m wrong on this, I’d ask you to think on this: you somehow find out that one of your own child’s teachers spends every single lesson teaching lessons they have gleaned and paid for from the web. They are delivered, as I’ve always seen lessons borrowed from elsewhere to be delivered: with a monotonous lack of confidence. Who are you angry with? The sellers? Or the buyer? For me, it’s the buyer every time. How dare they treat my child- and my profession- with so little respect.

I hope this has clarified my thinking on the issue- it certainly has for me. However, I accept that my thinking is as liable to change as anybody’s. And if it does change, you’ll know about it, rest assured. 

Blogs about Boys

Recently, a few people have asked that I compile a list of all the posts I’ve written on the topic of boys and masculinity in school. 

So here it is.

Before you read, please note that what you see here is a journey. My thoughts on gender are constantly evolving, changing and developing as I get older, as I read more, and as my thinking is challenged. 

1. Balance for Boys

In which I express my concern for a ‘hyper-feminised’ curriculum that serves to alienate boys. 

2. An Insight into the Male Experience

In which I detail the fact that for a lot of boys, walking away from a fight just isn’t good enough.

3. Pervy Boys

In which I express concern for the language used to discuss boys’ awkward, pubescent behaviour

4. 8 Mistakes about Boys in English

In which I outline 8 mistakes that English teachers commit when teaching English to boys.

5. Dear Boys

In which I write an open letter to boys, reminding them of how to behave, but also how they should expect others to behave towards them.

6. Man-Flu

In which I criticise people’s tendency to trivialise male illness.

7. Boys and Sexualised Language

In which I implore teachers to be severe in their dealings with boys who use sexualised language

8. Questioning Masculinity 

In which I implore teachers to question the way they deal with the ‘masculinity crisis’.

9. Rethinking Testosterone.

In which I renege on some of my earlier thoughts regarding testosterone’s influence on male behaviour. 

10. Masculinity and Violence in Schools

In which I propose a proactive approach to male violence in schools. 


Rethinking Testosterone 

At a recent talk, which can be accessed here, I explained that testosterone went some -but only some- way to explaining the reason that 95% of prisoners in U.K prisons are male. Testosterone makes men more inclined to take risks, and more aggressive I explained. 

Having just finished Cordelia Fine’s excellent Testosterone Rex, it seems that I may have been overstating testosterone’s role in male aggression and greater predilection for risk. 

As Fine explains eloquently, with humour, and in considerable detail in her book, the role of testosterone in influencing male behaviour is potentially far lesser than we have been led to believe. 

Here’s a summary of three of Fine’s more interesting points.

1. Testosterone and Risk 

The assertion that testosterone makes men more inclined to take risks is flawed at a fundamental level, purely because the majority of studies on this area, are gender-biased themselves. That is, the risks posed to male and female participants in risk studies – ‘Would you do a sky dive?’; ‘How much would you be willing to bet on such and such a game?’; ‘Would you have unprotected sex’ – are biased in favour of men. That is, they relate to experiences more commonly experienced by men as a result of gender socialisation. For example, society encourages men to take part in elaborate displays of machismo such as jumping out of metal objects thousands of feet high in the air; men are also more likely to be found sweating in betting shops and, because men are not troubled with the burden of carrying an actual human being inside them for 9 months,  unprotected sex is far less risky for a man.

Other studies looking at the behaviour of risky individuals have shown that human tendency towards risk does not stretch across all areas of an individual’s life. For example, a stock broker may be quite content to risk huge amounts of money on brokering a deal, but when it comes to riding a bike, they won’t do so without being wrapped in thirty layers of bubble wrap. Similarly, a BMX cyclist may be quite content to spend all day back flipping off their BMX in an array of dangerous situations, but when it comes to finance, they’re loathe to spend a penny in case the purchase doesn’t ‘pay-off’.

Finally, studies are showing that human tendency towards risk is context based. For example, studies in China show that women are every bit as risky as men so long as they aren’t aware of being observed. In the same study men became more risky in the presence of an observer.

The fact is, risk is a slippery and intangible topic and as such, it’s very difficult to say that tendency towards risk is a masculine behaviour created by testosterone. 

2. Testosterone’s Role 

Fine points out that testosterone’s role in guiding the body’s biological and behavioural processes is simply the most easily measurable amongst a whole host of other, more difficult to measure, processes such as: 

the conversion (of testosterone) to oestrogen, how much aromatise is around to make that happen, the amount of oestrogen produced by the brain itself, the number, and nature of androgen and oestrogen receptors, where they are located, their sensitivity…(pg.136)

All this means that actually, ‘the absolute testosterone level in the blood or saliva is likely to be an extremely crude guide to testosterone’s effect on the brain.’

As if this wasn’t enough to cast some shade on the long held belief that testosterone acts as a kind of hormonal tyrant, leading men into all sorts of danger and criminality,    there is increasing evidence to show that hormones don’t actually cause behaviour; rather, they simply make a behavioural response to an external stimulus more or less likely depending on wider social context. Whilst Fine doesn’t quote any human studies, she does make reference to a number of animal studies on Testosterone such as one in which male rhesus monkeys, were given a testosterone suppressant: the sexual behaviour of the highest ranking males was not affected by testosterone suppression, whilst those of lower ranking males was. All of which points to the fact that social context has greater impact than testosterone.

3. Testosterone and Behaviour: a role reversal?

Although the widely held view is that testosterone influences social behaviour, some studies have actually shown that social behaviour influences testosterone levels. For example, in humans, becoming a father will lower testosterone in men. However, the extent to which levels of testosterone are lowered depend on context. Tribes where paternal care was the norm saw greater reduction in testosterone levels than in tribes where paternal care was minimal. 

Another fascinating study gave male participants a fake baby to look after. For some men, the babies were programmed to cry persistently irrespective of the care given to it by the participants. Participants who had the crying babies had an increase of testosterone whilst those whose baby stopped crying when attended to, saw a drop in testosterone levels. All this is to say that testoserone is controlled and influenced by external stimuli ( in this case a crying baby), rather than, as one might expect, testosterone had an impact on these men’s ability to care for a child. 

Another study, conducted by the same researchers, showed that a role play situation in which both men and women were asked to enact power by firing someone, had no impact on male’s testosterone levels but significantly increased it on women. 

What does this mean for teachers?

Testosterone is a complicated beast. The view that males are victims of their hormonal urges cannot be taken seriously. Boys’ aggression and tendency to risky behaviour’s (misbehaving) cannot be put down to testosterone. As teachers we should take comfort in this fact: after all, arguably, it is easier to reverse social behaviours than it is to reverse the effects of thousands of years of evolutionary biology. 

By the time students reach Secondary school, the damaging effects of gender socialisation have most likely taken place and schools must take a directed and concerted effort at breaking down gender barriers that have been 11 years in the making.

At primary level, teachers need to be aware of the sketchy research base on testosterone and actively do what they can to ensure that misconceptions about the biology of boys and girls doesn’t impact on teachers’ perception- and therefore the way they encourage them to behave- of boys and girls.

In June, I’ll be talking about Violence and Boys, and what I think schools can do to tackle this problem, at TeachMeet Herts (#TMHerts). Once that’s done, I’ll blog about my proposed solution to the problem. 

Works Cited: Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine. 

My #SASFE17 Talk: Questioning Masculinity 

Just so you know. 

 I am a feminist. This talk is not about women. It is about men. When I say men have it hard, I am not saying women have it easy. When I say men are victims of sexism, I am not suggesting that women are not. When I say that men need help, I am not saying that women should be left to get on with it. I’m telling you this because a false dichotomy exists: this false dichotomy believes that the championing of the wellbeing of one gender is synonymous with the subjugation of the other. This is not the case.

 It all started with whales and penises.

 Once, in a previous school, a set of books was left in the staff room. They were being thrown out of the library and it was thought that maybe the English department would want them. One of these books was titled: ‘Banned Poems: Kids must not read!’ One of these poems was called ‘The Whale’ and it was about a teenage boy, on holiday with his friends, in the swimming pool, and feeling ashamed about the relatively small size of his penis. After we all had a good chuckle at the subtleties of the minnow/whale symbolism, I made a suggestion: ‘In all seriousness though, this could be an issue for some boys. Penis paranoia’, I mean. Everyone went silent. And then someone told me: “Oh shut up. You only like it because you’re a bloke and it’s about cocks. You probably think it’s high art.”

 Another time, I walked into a classroom and had to stand there whilst another teacher encouraged a group of 6th form students to mimic my deep voice. “I’m Mr Pinkett and I’m so tough with my deep voice.”

 I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, ‘You’ll get the job because you’re a bloke.’ As if the possession of penis is more important than the time, money and effort I’ve spent in trying to make myself a better teacher.  

 Anyway, all this got me to thinking. If this is what I’m getting- a professional- from fellow professionals, what are these professionals doing or saying to the boys that they teach day-in, day-out?

 Now I’ve explained my investment in this topic, I’d like to explain a bit about the current state of masculinity in this country. After that, I’ll go into more detail in a school context.

 As of April 7th 2017, 95% of the UK prison population was male. That is, 95% of the convicted murderers, abusers, and robbers in this country are male. 

 At some point, these men, each and every single one of them, was an innocent child yet to commit a crime. So what is it? Coincidence? Is it coincidence that the 95% are all united in their possession of a penis? Course it isn’t. 

 Part of the problem is biological. Men are more predisposed to violence.

 Firstly, biologically, men have evolved to be more aggressive as violence was needed to compete with other men to mate with females.

 Then there’s anatomy. The average male upper body is 75% stronger than that of a woman’s. Men’s skin is thicker, their reactions are faster, their bones denser. Men are primed for battle.

 Then, there’s testosterone. Testosterone is directly responsible for inducing competitive and violent behaviour. Men have more of it. 

 However, it’s not all biological. Not all men are committing crimes. And not all crimes are violent. It’s interesting to note that cognitively, there is little difference in male and female brains. In fact, according to countless studies, there is no significant difference in the cognition of male and female brains.

 A review study by Janet Hyde states that ‘males and females are similar on most psychological variables.’

 So, biological differences aside, what is the reason behind the fact that 95% of the prison population is male? The very same reason that only 5% of the prison population is female: gender socialisation. These innocent children, who would later on to become murderers, abusers and robbers, are themselves victims. Victims of social masculinity.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be brave.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be sexually potent.

 They are victims of a social masculinity which says they should be fighters.

 The artist and sculptor, Grayson Perry, who has recently done a number of television programmes exploring masculinity, got it spot on in his book, The Descent of Man, when he says:

 So what happens when men struggle with the requirements imposed upon them by society’s expectations of masculinity? When they fail to be the brave, sexually potent fighters that society expects them to be? Well, a lot of them, jack it all in.

 

• Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK, with 76% of all suicides in 2014 being men

 

• A man take his own life every 2 hours in the UK alone

 

• Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

 

 These are shocking statistics. Most prisoners are male. Most suicides are male. Clearly, there is a problem with masculinity. And it is a problem that we, as teachers, need to address just as we’d address issues of female inequality, racial prejudice, and religious intolerance.  

Grayson Perry makes another interesting point in his book. He argues that in society we need to actively discriminate against men to ensure total gender equality. This means that women should get jobs that more deserving men should get. I think there’s something in this. True gender equality can only be achieved when everybody is equal. When there is a 50/50 gender split between men and women in terms of job roles and job pay. There is a problem with this though. The problem is, that we are going to end up with a lot of proud men, who are unable to get the jobs they feel they deserve and have come to expect to be rightfully theirs because they are men. This means we’re going to have a lot of angry, upset men on their hands. And this is a problem.

So, as teachers, what can we do to make this transition to a new, less patriarchal age, more manageable for the boys in our case? For the boys who are more likely to go to prison or commit suicide than their female counterparts? The answer is simple. What can we, as teachers, do to combat the effects of biology and society? We need to question masculinity.

In fact, under this umbrella of ‘Questioning Masculinity’ we can break down the areas of questioning. We can:
• Question Ourselves

• Question our Curriculum

• Question our Boys

 

Let’s start with questioning ourselves.

In 1998, psychologists Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek developed a test of our subconscious racial prejudices, known as the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The test aims to measure our implicit or ‘automatic’ responses to black or white people. 80% of people who have ever taken the test ‘end up having pro-white associations.’ This is regardless of whether they are black or white themselves This doesn’t mean these people are evil. It just means that you’ve been brought up in a world where you are bombarded with images of ‘goodness’ being white and ‘blackness’ being bad.

This has huge implications when it comes to gender prejudices. Regardless of how liberal or discriminating of gender prejudice we consider ourselves to be, the simple fact is, that many of us must sub-consciously hold gender based prejudices in regards to both females and males. How could it not be the case? The media machine reinforces gender stereotypes every day. So does the world of business and commerce. The fact is, we live in a sexist society and it is inevitable that these prejudices would embed themselves firmly in both our conscious and sub-conscious thought processes.

The research supports this. In a study by Susan Jones and Debra Myhill, it was found that although 80% of teachers sampled said that it was their expectation that boys and girls should get the same results, interviews conducted with these very same teachers showed that teachers actually:

Posit a view of girls as compliant, but posit a counterbalancing view of boys as confidently immature, disruptive, and disinclined towards writing.

In fact:

 A simple tally of comments made of boys and girls, respectively, revealed 54 positive comments made about girls as compared with 22 negative comments, and 32 positive comments made about boys compared with 54 negative comments. Teachers give voice to a deficit model of male achievement.

Ask yourself, have you ever said any of these things about boys?

  • Boys are lazy
  • Boys are immature
  • Boys have worse handwriting
  • Boys don’t value learning
  • Boys would rather be cool than clever
  • Boys are poor readers
  • Boys don’t like sitting down
  • Boys are poor writers

As a male English teacher, I’m acutely aware of other teachers’ tendency to group boys using stereotypes. I hear things like ‘I’ve got a boy-heavy class so I’ll do Macbeth; boys love death.” Another one is, “I’ll do war poetry. Boys love war.” And the ultimate one is: “He won’t read? Give him a book about football.”
It’s all bollocks.

The fact is, all boys love war, death and football no more than all girls love unicorns, baking and pixie dust.

As teachers, we need to be aware of this tendency-whether it’s conscious or otherwise-among practitioners of our profession to be group boys using stereotypes. We need to question the way we are talking about boys and how are we talking to boys.

Going back to the experiment I mentioned earlier, research has shown that participant subjection to positive images of black people did play a part in reducing racial bias. Therefore, reminding ourselves of what boys can achieve academically; thinking about the boys who are quiet and just get on; reminding ourselves that even the most challenging of boys are so, not because they were born with a penis, but because they have suffered elsewhere along the way, will go, I believe, some way to improving the chances of our boys experiencing success.

We also need to question our curriculum.

We need to be aware, that the national picture is bleak. In all aspects of education, boys are behind girls.
So, based on this, let me tell you the first thing we can do instantly:

Ensure that our classrooms are gender equal.

This means, if you are setting by gender, stop. If your bottom sets are full of boys, change that. Take some up and put some girls in. It makes absolutely no sense to put the weakest learners-boys-in classes with a load of other boys. They will learn nothing from one another. Get some girls in there.

I think there’s a problem with our curriculum. I’m going to talk about English now, to illustrate a point which I think can be applied to the wider curriculum and other subject areas.

In a blog post from 2016, I stated the following:

Teachers across the country are so focused on addressing, combating, and undoing the deplorable wrongs inflicted on women in society, media, and literature for centuries, that they’re inadvertently alienating the boys.

In a curriculum that is largely dominated by the works of dead white men, I feel it my duty to challenge sexist representations of women at every opportunity. Some questions I might ask are: 

• Is it okay for the poet to refer to the recently conquered country as a woman?

• Why it is that Curley’s wife has no name? Why is she referred to as Curley’s wife?

• What do you think about the way Juliet is treated by her father?

Such questions are vital. They are vital for one reason: they all lead to a discussion around the fact that women have been unfairly subjugated, exploited, and abused for thousands of years.

And yet, I am increasingly starting to ruminate: What is this doing to the self-esteem of the boys in my class? Is this constant hammering home of the fact that men have treated women unjustly for centuries going to make them like English? Or will they be bored to the teeth of hearing how hard it is to be a woman, without due consideration for how tough it is to be a man?

I teach ‘A View from the Bridge’ to Year 9 and every year, in reference to the tragic ending of the play, I say something along these lines:

“See what happens when you let masculine pride take over? It’s ridiculous. A man dies, for nothing else than masculine pride. It’s stupid; it’s idiotic. It’s childish.”

And, sure enough, the whole class and I laugh in utter disbelief that a grown man could be so infantile. Look how liberal we are! Stupid men! Boo-hiss stupid men!

Let’s consider an alternative comment:

“Don’t you think it’s disgusting that Catherine refuses to consider Eddie’s suspicions about Rodolpho? Hasn’t Catherine considered the pressures society puts on a man to protect those he loves? How unfair of her not to try and understand him!” And yet, nobody ever asks this question? Why? Because men are in the privileged position of being the default setting and the default setting never gets questioned.

I think of other novels I’ve taught over the years. The Great Gatsby. Routinely, Gatsby, as a character, is denounced by female teachers as an idiot; someone who fails to realise that lies and deception aren’t a means to obtain love. Okay, good point, but what about considering this: Isn’t he actually great? He sets himself a goal and he very nearly achieves it. The thing that leads to his downfall, isn’t his own ego, or his own failure to realise what true love is, it’s the whimsical nature of the object of his affections. The fact is, Daisy chooses to spend her life with a racist prick (yes a man), instead of Gatsby. She’s the idiot.

Let’s talk about Rochester in Jane Eyre. He locks his made wife up in an attic. Horrible man. He is routinely discussed in English classrooms all over the land as a symbol of patriarchal dominance. A metaphor for a society determined to keep women quiet. Rarely do I hear anybody discuss the fact that actually, Rochester is forced into marrying someone he doesn’t want to marry because of the social conventions of the time. Rochester begrudgingly embarked on a marriage purely to satisfy the needs of a society that says men need to make sacrifices to ensure success. Which is exactly what Rochester does.

As teachers of all subjects, we need to ensure that we’re not only asking questions that expose racial prejudice and anti-female biases for the crock of shite they are; we need to be ensuring that we are asking questions that put masculinity under the spotlight too.

People often criticise the literary canon for being dominated by men. And this is true. Here’s a list of GCSE English texts that I have taught in my time as a teacher.

• Macbeth

• Romeo and Juliet

• Othello

• Lord of the Flies

• An Inspector Calls

• The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

• A Christmas Carol

All dominated by male characters. True. But virtuous male characters? Not quite. In fact, in these 7 texts alone we have:

• Rapists

• Child killers

• Mass murderers

• Thieves

• Monsters

• Misers

• Adulterers

Yes. The English curriculum is more male-centered. But, all this simply means is, we get more males than females doing shit things to other people. Do we get more male heroes though? Let’s see. This isn’t limited to English. Take History for example. Here’s a list of 10 key historical figures studied at Secondary school. Mostly male. Okay, I’m not great at history, but all these men aren’t all good blokes. They’re not all positive role models.

So what can we do? Schools need to audit their provision. They need to work with subject teachers to find answers to some key questions.

Once this audit has been completed, schools need to adjust their pastoral focus. They need to accept that there are some issues specific to males. And they need to be addressed.

Questioning Them:

A study by Brody and Hall found that at a young age:

Girls become more adept at reading both verbal and non-verbal emotional signals, at expressing and communicating their feelings, and boys become more adept at minimizing emotions having to do with vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt.

In fact, many studies have shown that girls are more likely to express ‘sad’ emotions, such as the ones above, whereas boys are less likely to. Add this to other studies which have shown that boys use between ten to 30 times less spoken language even before school and we have a lot of boys that a) refuse to acknowledge their ‘sad’ emotions and b) boys who lack the skills to acknowledge their ‘sad’ emotions.

This does not mean that boys are less likely to feel sad.

If boys lack the skill and inclination to discuss the feelings of vulnerability, guilt, fear and hurt, that inevitably plague them, they revel in their assertive emotions. The anger, the bitterness, the cruel ‘banter’.

And some of them even kill themselves.

So here’s what we need to do. We need to move away from a ‘grunt’ culture. When we ask our male students to voice their opinions on a historical event or a religious law or a piece of theatre we need to refuse to accept a grunt or ‘I don’t know’ as a valid answer. In fact, at an early age, we need to ban I don’t know from our classrooms.

If students genuinely don’t know, then we can change the wording off our questions. Instead of saying ‘Why did the Wall Street Crash happen’, we can say ‘Why do you think the wall street crash happened?’ ‘How does Ralph feel when Piggy dies’ becomes ‘How do you think Ralph feels when Piggy dies?’ And so on.

We can also empower students by giving them the vocabulary needed to express themselves. How? Well, first off, reading. Boys need to be reading. Students who read for 20 minutes a day will be subjected to 1.8 million words in a year. Those who don’t will see 8000.

What about the boys who don’t read? Well, they need a whole school programme of carefully designed and explicit vocabulary instruction to be completed in school, during form times, or English lessons. All teachers of all subjects need to be aware of these vocabulary words and they need to be encouraging students to express themselves in them.

I want to finish my talk today by addressing an issue which I think is a disgrace:It’s the language of sex in our schools.

A recent report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that:

• Almost a third of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school.

• 71% of all students say they hear terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ on a regular basis at schools.

• 59% of females aged 13-21 have faced some sort of sexual harassment at school in the past year.

 I’ve written about this (Dear Boys) and I want to read you it. It’s a message that we need to be telling our boys.

Objectification is the process of making another person feel as though they are less than human; an object to be used as others wish. Women are objectified every day. They are whistled at, and they are grabbed, and they are pinched. Whatever your intentions, making non-consensual physical contact with a woman is unacceptable. So don’t do it. Talking about women as some of you do, using crude and unsavoury sexual language, is also a form of objectification. Stop it.

You’d do well to remember that men are objectified too. When female panelists on daytime chat shows whistle and leer at that geezer from Poldark or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are objectifying him. When Sunday supplements lead with articles like ‘Britain’s Sexiest Scientist’, they are objectifying him. When females say things like ‘come and give us a hand with this muscle man’, they are objectifying men. There’s more to men than their physicality.
This message-this constant reinforcement of the fact that objectification of women is wrong needs to be reiterated again and again and again. But we also need to ensure that our boys are not being objectified too.
The fact is, our boys are biologically and socially primed to be sexual beings. We can make pastoral efforts to change this, but it’s also something we can challenge in the classroom. The way to do this is by challenging the language we hear from boys-and girls-, in classrooms, up and down the country.

Words such as:

• Slag

• Slut

• Pussy

• Gash

• Paedo

• Nonce

• Dick

These words are used as part of student vernacular. This is normalising violent and predatory attitudes towards sex. The fact is, they are used so often and so routinely, it can be easy to overlook them.

Most worrying, for me, is the use of the word ‘rape’ as a verb, used light heartedly, to mean ‘beaten severely.’ As in, I got absolutely raped on call of Duty last night.’ I’ve even heard kids shout ‘Sir! He’s raping me!’ as his friend play fights with him. This needs to stop. As teachers, we need to come down hard on this. Such language needs to have instant and severe sanctions. If this isn’t an option we can take our own direct approach. If I hear a boy, in my lesson, use the word ‘rape’, I take it upon myself to explain, very bluntly, that ‘rape is the forced insertion of a penis into the vagina, anus or any other orifice of another human being who doesn’t want it.’ I’ve found that this normally stops it.

The same goes for the word ‘paedo’ and ‘perv’ and one I hear often: stalker.

Which leads me to a story about a colleague of mine, who once told me she was ‘stalked’ by someone she described as a ‘little perv.’ When I probed further, what I actually found was this. When this colleague was at school, a boy who fancied her, followed her home, but not having the courage to make known his affections directly, posted a letter through her door, explaining his reasons for following her home. A story which began as a sinister tale of a male predator actually turned out to be a story of a slightly awkward teenagers inability to make his affection for the object of his crush known. And I see this happening everywhere. Boys who message girls on Facebook after school are denounced as ‘Stalkers’. Boys who awkwardly stare at someone they fancy are described as ‘perverts’. Boys who date someone in the year below them are mocked as ‘paedophiles.’ And this is from girls and boys.

The fact is, this needs to stop. Trivilisation of terms such as paedo, rape, stalker, and perv only serve to soften the stigma attached to these terms where they are rightfully attributed. As teachers, we need to question boys and girls every time they choose to use a sexualised term. We need to question the girls who denounce their male peers as paedos and stalkers. We need to question the routinely sexualised language that some students aren’t even aware they’re using.