A Thought Experiment Gone Horribly Wrong…

This week I’ve been arguing quite passionately that there is no need for classroom teachers to know which of their pupils are in receipt of the Pupil Premium fund. The rationale behind this belief is that such knowledge might trigger an unconscious bias that leads classroom teachers to view students from lower socio-economic backgrounds as academically or behaviourally deficient. Of course, no teacher wants to admit that they might be biased against anybody, particularly any students they teach. Teachers should be saints, after all.

This morning, I thought about how I might get teachers to examine any unconscious bias they might hold against students from low-income backgrounds and so this tweet was born:

I gave no information about distances, or safety, or street lighting; only the fact that one route goes through an estate, and the other doesn’t. For me, choosing the second option was a potential indicator of a class bias because only a negative view of council estates could lead one to instinctively choose the second option.

Note: I’m not so stupid as to realise that this thought experiment could be hugely flawed in any number of ways – I did appeal for help to make the thought experiment ‘tighter’:

I didn’t actually want answers to the question. Confronting biases is uncomfortable, and I would never expect or ask teachers to share such information online. For what it’s worth, I’d always take the second option. This is in spite of the fact that my house is on a council estate, which means I am burdened (or empowered?) with the uncomfortable knowledge that I too could be class-biased.

When I used the pronoun ‘you’ in the original question, I meant it: I wanted people to consider their instinctive response to the question in the context of their gender, beliefs, religion and experiences, because these are all things that impact on the way we form our individual biases. So, if you are a woman who carries a rape alarm at night, keys sticking out of a clenched fist in preparation for an attack, then I wanted the question answered as a woman who carries a rape alarm at night, keys sticking out of a clenched fist in preparation for an attack. Similarly, if you are a man, who never has to worry about being raped when walking at night, then I wanted you to answer as a man who never has to worry about being raped when walking at night.

My tweet was met with a large number of caveats, on my timeline and via DM, which I soon dismissed as ‘boring’:

• Which route is safer?

• Which route is quickest?

• Who am I with?

• I wouldn’t walk either because I’m a woman

• Are statistics available on crimes that have taken place in each route?

I shouldn’t have called these caveats boring, but I did because I felt that people were intentionally detracting from my original point.

The adjective was also borne out of frustration because I felt utterly patronised, when it came to people’s comments relating to gender. Many people, mostly by DM, and some publicly, explained to me that women couldn’t answer the question because they would never even consider walking alone at night.

I didn’t just feel patronised – I was boiling with anger. I know it’s not safe for women to walk alone at night. I really, really know this.

Of course, I will never fully ‘know’, because I am a man. But I feel that I try very hard to understand: I go all over the country talking about gender and the way negative aspects of masculinity impacts women so appallingly. During the research for the ‘Sex and Sexism’ chapter of my book, I interviewed many, many women who have suffered vile abuse, in an attempt to better understand the female perspective on this. I felt that people were suggesting I was unthinking and uncaring, and that was frustrating for me.

I was wrong though.

My question, although well meaning, was male-centric. It didn’t take into account that many women never have walked alone at night because of the threat of male violence, and even those women who have walked alone at night, the negative emotions invoked by such an experience made answering the question impossible, because it’s entirely impossible to separate gender from the hypothetical scenario. The question excluded women and so I am sorry for posing it as I did.

But being sorry does not mean I am any less angry or frustrated. I am human. And it’s human to feel infuriated when you mess up particularly when you mess up in an area to which you devote a lot of time, money, and emotion.

Also, I still think that people need to realise that despite how I come across on Twitter: despite the selfies, and the baseball caps and the hastily written tweets that are posted without proper thought, I’m not stupid. I don’t need to be told that it’s unsafe for women to walk alone at night. I’m not an idiot.

So what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that still, I see things through the male lens. I can never take for granted what being a man grants me. Even something as trivial as this morning’s tweet was loaded with gender privilege that excluded women.

On a positive note, whilst I’m upset by all this, I realise that this is a learning curve. And I will learn from it. So thanks to all those who have engaged without deliberately patronising, and I’m sorry to all those my tweet offended.

N.B – Here’s a (hopefully) improved version of my original thought experiment:

It’s the daytime and you are walking home. There are two possible routes to take, both of equal distance. Do you take…

1. The route through the council estate?

2. The route through the street with an average house price of £500k

Try not to think too hard about it. Go with your immediate, instinctive answer. This could indicate a class bias. Couldn’t it?

Messy Planning: Part Three

If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

In this final blog post on Messy Planning I want to convey a sense of what my lessons look like. The best way to do this, I think, is to take you through a typical lesson from start to finish, segueing into deeper explanation if I deem it necessary to do so.

Recently, a student told me, “It looks like you just decide what to teach on the day.” This disappointed me, because it’s not true. (I’ve talked about that here.) But, nevertheless, it worries me that the way my lessons ‘look’ leads students to think this way, given that student perception of a teacher’s capabilities goes some way to building those all-important relationships necessary for optimum learning. (Andy Tharby covers this in some detail, in Chapter Two of his new book, How to explain absolutely anything to absolutely anyone: The Art and Science of Teacher Explanation.) As such, what follows should not be read as an example of ‘How to do it’, but rather as simply an honest reflection of what a typical lesson looks like if you are a student in one of my classes.

1. Start of the lesson

Students will walk into the lesson and more often than not, there will not be a pre-prepared worksheet on the desk in front of them. Instead, students stand until I tell them so sit and then I’ll declare firmly, “Back of your books.” Students know right from the off that what’s about to take place is a low-stakes quiz. This means:

• They’re going to be asked to remember something they’ve been taught previously

• They’re going to be asked difficult questions

• I will not ask them for their answers

• I will not mark their answers

• I will not look at what they write

At the start of every year I talk to students about low-stakes quizzing and the importance of retrieval practice, and because they know what’s going on, they’ll carry out the quiz honestly. Typically, I’ll ask them a few questions about content learned in the previous lesson, with a few questions about something they did the previous, week, month, year etc. Sometimes, I won’t do this, but will just ask them to write down as many quotations as they can remember from a text we’ve been studying.

I’ll always give feedback on the quizzes and tell kids the answers to the questions. More often than not, this means re-teaching something. For example, if none of the students remember that ‘Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t’ is an example of antithesis, I’ll have to teach them the definition of antithesis, using examples and non-examples (from memory – I can do this because of how I spend my Planning and Preparation Time), again. I’ll make a mental note to question them on antithesis again later in the week. 9 times out of 10 I’ll remember to do this.

2. The Lesson

I give out the books and start reading. If we come to a section of the text that I think worthy of deeper analysis, I’ll put my own copy of the text under the visualiser. I use a relatively cheap one from Ipevo. I’ll question kids on the extract and I’ll annotate it on the board for them to see. If I’m asking them to annotate, I’ll encourage students to write annotations in their own words if at all possible.

Sometimes, it becomes necessary to use images. I rarely rely on pre-prepared images (unless I’m teaching something new for the first time). Often, a student will ask a question that will require an answer that uses images for elucidation and I’ll have to do a ‘live search’ there and then. For example, in a recent lesson with Year 11, as we were analysing some post-war poetry, many students had an uncertain grasp on the concept of Modernism. Thinking on my feet, I googled an image of the Mona Lisa and then another of a Picasso. I explained to students that the De Vinci represented a traditional view of the world, whilst the Picasso could be said to be modernist. I then went onto explain Modernism in more detail.

This sort of ‘live searching’ occurs often. It’s not perfect, and I’m sure it can be one of the reasons some students may think I’ve not ‘planned’ a lesson. For many students a planned lesson is a PowerPoint lesson. However, the fact is, I simply cannot anticipate every single question or misconception that all the individuals in any one lesson might present. Nor can I anticipate which extracts or texts from my long term memory will be necessary to draw upon to make clear these misconceptions up and so, often, students will see me darting to my office to come back with a dusty book to whack under the visualiser to aid learning or understanding.

Generally, I talk lots. My talking is great at times – I think I can stretch kids pretty far and I think over the years I’ve developed some pretty good explanations. At other times, I talk too much and I rely on humour too much. As I get older I think it seems a little desperate. I need to work on this.

I’m pretty handy at drawing so I like to occasionally draw on the white board to aid kids’ understanding. For example, I’ll draw Ozymandias as I’m teaching it. That looks like this.

Once I’ve done my talking I’ll ask kids to do a written task. Generally, before they get on with it, I’ll model a live example on the board. Live modelling is important. After all:

When kids get to work I’ll try and be silent, but again, I need to get better at this. As kids are working I’ll keep an eye on who’s struggling and I’ll talk to kids about their work as they do it, asking questions to prompt students to think about mistakes they may have committed. I’ll always find the time to stop the class and read out examples of good work.

Ideally, everytime students conduct written work, I’ll take the time to see each kids work individually, and I’ll give verbal feedback to the whole class, before setting them DIRT tasks aimed at rectifying common errors. But this doesn’t always happen. It happens, but not always.

At the end of the lesson a bell will go and I’ll realise I haven’t set homework so I’ll ask kids to finish off what they didn’t do during class, or, as is usually the case, I’ll set them a question that they need to answer, based on what’s been learnt in lessons. Today, me and Year 8 read and watched Act 1 Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Their homework was:

‘Harold Bloom said that “Bottom is Shakespeare’s Everyman.” What do you think this means? Tell me why you agree or disagree.’

I hadn’t planned this homework before the lesson, but it seemed the right thing to set based on what we got covered in class.

Told you it was messy.

Messy Planning: Part Two

If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

In the first of this series of blog posts, I explained that I rarely employ the use of written lesson plans or presentation software to guide the direction of my lessons. I also asserted that it’s my use of planning and preparation (P+P) time that allows me to work this way.

The short answer to the question that opens this post is: I read. My reading can be split into two sorts: Pedagogical reading and subject reading. Because I spend as much as my P+P time reading, I believe I am a better teacher. I’d even go as far to say that if I spent my time endlessly creating Lesson Plans or PowerPoint presentations during my P+P time, instead of reading, I (emphasis on ‘I’) would be a worse teacher because of it. For me, every slide created is a page not read.

I tend to read with a coffee in one hand, a book in the other, and both feet up, either on a chair or a desk. This makes me comfortable and makes the reading experience more enjoyable. Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work. I highly recommend others teachers spend their P+P time this way.

But be careful.

In spending your time this way, you open yourself up to suspicion and criticism from colleagues. After all, in this time of austerity and accountability and data and data and data, it takes a brave soul to dare to lounge around with a book, especially when SLT are on the prowl and other teachers are hunched over computer screens organising slide transitions.

Daring to read a book is further perilous because the development of one’s subject knowledge is so often assumed to be something that one does ‘after school’, an assumption which fails to recognise that most teachers are actually humans for whom the prospect of eating and drinking whilst watching a celebrity eat a bollock is far more exciting, after a long day’s work, than reading anything more intellectually stimulating than [insert name of leading British tabloid here].

As I’ve already said, my reading is either pedagogy based, or subject based. Which is lucky, because Robert Coe et al found that ‘the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.’ I’d like to discuss each of these types of reading, briefly, and in turn.

Pedagogical Reading

I spend lots of time reading about teaching and learning. This reading material is found either in the form of blogs or books. I’ve read lots, but the reading on teaching, how to teach, learning, and how to learn, that really stands out, without looking at my book shelf, was found in these places:

What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? David Didau

Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou

Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel Willingham

• Andy Tharby’s blog post on The Memory Platform

• Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex

• James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog

Spending time, in the school day, to read these has changed the way I will teach forever. That is to say, many of these books or blog posts has improved every lesson I will ever teach forever. Where they haven’t improved my lessons, they have definitely improved me as a teacher, more generally. I don’t think I can say either of these things about any time I’ve spent creating a Lesson Plan or PowerPoint presentation. I want to try and be specific. Allow me to explain:

-What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

Most significantly, this book made me realise the benefits of the testing effect. Because of this book, I test my students every lesson.

-Making Good Progress?

As a teacher, Daisy’s book helped me to design intelligent multiple choice questions that challenge children, whilst reducing my workload.

As a Head of Department, it was this book that helped me to help others in my school get us to a point where we assess summatively just twice across the whole year.

-Why Don’t Students Like School?

Willingham’s model of the memory means that I am always aware of the limits of the working memory, and also the ways that I, as a teacher, can reduce extraneous load to ensure student learning is enhanced.

-Andy Tharby’s blog on the Memory Platform

If Didau’s book taught me everything I needed to know about interleaving, it was Tharby’s memory platform that helped me to incorporate it regularly (twice a week minimum) and easily into all my lessons.

-Carl Hendrick’s blog on The Semmelweiss Reflex

For years people rolled their eyes at me as I cited research at them. This blog made me realise why. And as a result, I’m a little more patient and a little less of an arsehole.

-James Theo’s ‘The Knowledge’ blog

Because of James, now, when I want kids to know stuff, I tell them what I want to know, rather than asking stupid questions or engaging them in silly tasks in the hope that they’ll guess what’s already in my head.

I’ve been to some good CPD. But nothing I’ve ever had spoken to me, spoke to me like the stuff in these books. And unlike speakers, I can whack books on a shelf and open them again and again and again. A PowerPoint slide lasts as long as the memory stick takes to get lost. The stuff in these books stays, even if the books themselves are lost.

Subject Reading

Part of the reason I became a teacher was to indulge my passion for English, so an hour of reading a book around my subject is absolute joy. And it’s a joy that benefits my pupils. Reading around my subject, for me anyway, is not about reading a revision guide or revision website on the text I’m currently teaching. That’s just reading someone else’s reading about the reading. That’s not to say I never do this (of course I do – I teach Emily Dickinson), but what I prefer to do is read the following:

• Literary theory

• Critical essays

• Fiction written by contemporaries of authors we’re reading in class

• Other works of fiction written by the author of the text we’re studying in class

• Non-fiction texts written by the author of the text we’re studying in class

It is this sort of reading that makes me, occasionally, a great teacher.

It is this type of reading that allows me explain to kids, during a lesson looking at Mr Birling, ‘ George Orwell was writing about Mr Birling before Mr Birling was even a thing’, as I whack the following extract from The Road to Wigan Pier under the visualiser:

It is this type of reading that allows me to tell classes, year after year, as we read Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth, that the sibilant sounds that permeate the Macbeths’ speech make it sound like they’re whispering. That in fact, what the Macbeth’s are engaging in are the ‘conspiratorial whisperings’ outlined by Kermode in his book, Shakespeare’s Language.

It is this type of reading that allows me show kids extracts from The Grapes of Wrath in preparation for teaching Of Mice and Men.

This is the type of reading that warms.

The information gleaned from this sort of reading kindles fires that are always there, smouldering, just waiting to be ignited by the touch paper of a question from a student or something falling into place where it didn’t before.

Here’s a list of the fires, quietly burning, some for a while now, some begun only recently, just waiting to burst into flames as I teach Macbeth:

• Ellen Terry’s assertion that ‘It is strange that Lady Macbeth should be seen ‘as a sort of monster’, read in an article on the British Library website. (https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/unsex-me-here-lady-macbeths-hell-broth )

• A.C. Bradley’s statement that, ‘Macbeth gives the impression of a black night broken by flashes of light and colour…and the colour is the colour of blood’, taken from A.C. Bradley’s famous Shakespearean Tragedy

• ‘The clown acts as a bridge between the stage and the audience’, taken from The Cambridge introduction to Shakespearean Comedy

Conspiratorial Whisperings’, a phrase taken from Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language, which has also influenced my own phrase, ‘mono-syllabic splutterings’ to refer to Lady Macbeth’s final angst-ridden prose.

• The knowledge that actually, in asking ‘unsex me here’, Lady Macbeth is not asking to be stripped of her femininity, but rather she is asking almost the opposite: to be the most womanish of women; that is, an old woman. Taken from another article from the British Library (https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/witches-in-macbeth)

These nuggets of information, found in books, will reveal themselves, shining, to form the basis of whole lessons, even a series of lessons which opens kids’ minds to perspectives rarely explored in revision guides or websites. As I said in the previous blog post in the series, this is the reading that provides me with the analogies, allusions, explanations, examples, non-examples, and counterpoints needed to ensure kids learn well.

In the next, and final, series of this blog series on Messy Planning, I’ll explain what all this looks like in the lesson.

Messy Planning: Part One

Earlier this week I tweeted one of those tweets I never write to generate attention:

Since then, a number of people have got in touch with me to ask either one of three questions:

1. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

2. If you don’t plan lessons, what do you do during your planning and preparation time?

3. If you don’t use PowerPoint, what do your lessons look like?

I’ve called this series ‘Messy Planning’ because to some, my approach to lessons seems unorganised and unplanned. As if I rock up to school and just wing it. Partly because I want to convince myself that my methods aren’t as haphazard as they seem to others, partly because I’m sick of people telling me I never plan lessons, and partly in an attempt to reassure other messy planners, I want to answer each of these questions, in three separate blog posts, the first of which begins shortly.

Before I go on though, I want to clarify a few things:

• I have absolutely no problems with people who plan lessons using lesson plans.

• I have absolutely no problems with people who choose to use presentation software in lessons.

• From a teaching perspective, I think PowerPoints can be really bloody useful, particularly if you are new to teaching, or you are a teacher teaching a new topic or subject. The act of learning new information and transferring it into presentation form can be really useful in consolidating information. Also, slides are great prompts for discussion and questioning in class. Of course, the capacity to show diagrams to assist explanations is also very useful. However…

• …From a learning perspective I don’t know if PowerPoint presentations are always really bloody useful. Often, slides are overloaded and teachers lacking in confidence can put unnecessary cognitive load on students’ working memory by reading aloud, information that is there in writing on the slide for students to read. Also, over- reliance on slides can indicate to students a lack of confidence which may negatively impact student-teacher relationships, an important facet of learning.

Anyway. Let’s go.

Question One: If you don’t plan lessons, what do you plan?

Put simply, I don’t plan lessons because learning doesn’t occur in those arbitrary units of time we decide to call ‘lessons’. Students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments dependant on the differing levels of pre-existing knowledge they bring to different lessons depending on the different variables impacting on their different lives at any given moment. Honestly, because of this, planning ‘lessons’ seems futile to me.

I choose to take some of the pressure off. Instead, I focus on the long game which sees the end of a unit of work as its end point. (And even then I keep in mind that the real end point is the end of the year, meaning that even once a unit is complete, I’ll have to keep revisiting that unit’s material in future units.) Below, is a picture of my ‘Brain Bank’ for Year 10’s study of An Inspector Calls:

It contains the most basic information I want all students to know as a minimum. This is the closest I come to writing anything down when it comes to planning. Then, knowing that this is the information I want to impart onto the students, I go into the lesson and begin teaching.

So what do I actually do?

I allow the texts-and the students’ responses to the texts – to dictate the pace and direction of my lessons. I do this because students learn different things, at different rates, in different environments … So every time I begin a new text for study, all I do (after a lesson providing some contextual background) is go into the class and start reading the text. I don’t write down on a PowerPoint slide or on a piece of paper, specific moments at which we’ll stop and do a task. Rarely do I employ the use of pre-prepared diagrams to elucidate understanding. I certainly never approach a lesson with the intention of ‘getting to a certain point’ in the text.

I just start reading.

I start reading the text and what happens in the lesson is determined by what I, as an expert in my subject, judge students to understand or not understand about what we’re reading. This isn’t to say I don’t have a plan. I do; it’s just in my head. For many of the texts I teach, I am now in my fifth, sixth or seventh year of teaching them. I know them inside out. Over the years I have developed a repertoire of analogies, explanations, and allusions to ensure students learn what’s important. I know when and how to draw upon these depending on the level of understanding of the individuals in front of me; I know the quotations to interrogate, the scenes to dwell on, and the critics to cite.

What is it that has imbued me with this power? Well, it’s what I get up to in my free periods, which you can read about in the next instalment. (Clue: It’s not creating lengthy PowerPoint slides.)

Messy Planning: Part Two can be found Here

Iambic Pentameter: A few analogies.

At my school, we spend a lot of time teaching students, across both key stages, about the intricacies of poetic meter. A large amount of this time is concentrated specifically on Iambic Pentameter, the understanding of which is tested in all end of year exams, from year 8 onwards. (In Year 7 we only ask that students know the difference between verse and prose.) Increasingly, I am presented with evidence that this focus is paying off.

This week, a Year 10 student wrote this:

The audience would feel surprised at the witches’ aggressiveness. Unlike other characters in the play that speak in dignified iambic pentameter, the witches speak in trochaic trimeter with a masculine ending. The stressed beat that opens the witches’ chant makes them seem immediately violent…

Rearing its head alongside these moments of impressive sophistication is a misconception that I’ve only recently become aware of. This misconception is the idea that in Elizabethan or Jacobean England, everybody spoke like the characters in Shakespeare plays. That is to say, I have come across students who think that the poetic lexicon of Othello, Orsino, and Ophelia reflects the language of the farmers, merchants, thieves and vagabonds of 16th and 17th Century England.

In the blog that follows I have included some scripted analogies I used in an English lesson today in which I tried to dismantle this misconception and improve students’ understanding of not only the power of poetry, but also their understanding of Shakespeare as performance. (Warning: These analogies do make reference to rap music. I promise you, this is not done in an attempt to be down with the kids. Hopefully, that will become clear.)

So, today I told students:

In Shakespeare’s day, people that visited Shakespeare’s plays, did not speak like the actors on the stage. It’s like when I go to the cinema on a Thursday evening. I might watch a Hollywood action movie, but I don’t come in on Friday and teach all my lessons speaking in an American accent, using one-liners. Can you imagine? (The following is spoken in an American grizzle, Bruce Willis style)“Hey kids. Get out your books. Or…die.”

I then explained:

In fact, many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have had no better grasp of the language and words used by the actors on stage than you or I. The extent to which they understood would have depended, like it does with us today, on the individual’s level of education, vocabulary, and cultural awareness. Many people in Shakespeare’s audiences would have been far less educated than us, so actually it was likely the case that not only did the people in Shakespeare’s time not speak like Shakespeare’s characters, but they wouldn’t have understood it either.

Naturally, I went on:

However, although they may not have grasped all the words, they would have grasped some of them, just as you or I would. Also, they may well have been attuned to the rhythms of speech on stage. Changes of rhythm may have struck them as unusual, or as signifying an emotional change. Let me give you an example. Who knows the Eminem song, ‘Rap God’? Well, you know the ‘fast bit’ of that song? Where Eminem raps at rapid speed? (This can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbGs_qK2PQA at 4.26. Do not show to students) Well, when I listen to that song, I cannot hear the words Eminem is saying. But, I can clearly recognise a change in rhythm. A change in what has gone before, not only in that song, but in most of Eminem’s other work. And that change arrests my attention. It captivates me and it speaks to me. It tells me something. So, when the audience is watching a play that is written mostly in iambic pentameter, and then, all of a sudden, three old women come on stage speaking in trochaic tetrameter, that would capture the audience’s attention. It would mark these women out as different, otherworldly, aggressive or malevolent.

At this point a student asked me:

“So, you’re saying that people went to the theatre, just to hear the rhythm and not the actual words?”

I replied:

Not fully. Of course, an understanding of words helps. But the rhythm counts for a lot too. It’s like when you hear a song for the first time and love it. What immediately arrests you is the rhythm. The way the song sounds. It’s only after this that you listen out for the words. You might not get all the words or phrasing, but you enjoy the song. Also, I don’t think you can underestimate the power of rhythm. Two of my favourite rappers are Notorious BIG and Tupac. However, if I could choose to listen to only one of them for the rest of my life, it would always be BIG, because I love the slow, lilting rhythm of his rap. (At this point I did a cringe-worthy rendition of one of the only swear-free verses I know of Biggie’s.)

I’m aware these scripted analogies are linked haphazardly here, but I’ve included them all as perhaps they could be used individually, as analogies to illuminate your own students’ understanding of the nuance of poetic meter on the Shakespeare stage.

Update: I asked the renowned Shakespearean actor and expert, Ben Crystal to read this blog and let me know how accurate I was in my assertions. This is his reply:

Fragile Masculinity

According to Urban Dictionary, ‘Fragile Masculinity’ is a term…

…used to describe a man who has a fragile sense of masculinity for whatever reason. It can be used for someone who tries too hard to fit the male stereotypes in fear of looking too feminine in front of society.

Fragile masculinity came to the fore recently when Piers Morgan mocked James Bond actor, Daniel Craig, for wearing a papoose to carry his baby. Presumably for Morgan, a proper man swings his child by the hair, like someone swinging a bucket of water in a gravity experiment, pausing occasionally only to punch a wall or scratch an oversized bollock. Morgan’s discomfort at Craig’s method of child transportation was declared an indicator of his own fragile masculinity; his manly disdain for the papoose a desperate attempt to compensate for the fact that his masculinity is under threat elsewhere.

The abuse Morgan received was all a little bit embarrassing for me, because I too have been guilty of papoose prejudice in the past. In fact, I have even mocked my own father for his employment of the parent pouch, declaring-and wholeheartedly believing- that such an adornment was an embarrassing symbol of a lack of masculine credentials. Alas, my scorn was not limited to the pappoose. At a recent #WomenEd event I told delegates about how I used to believe that pushing a pram with two hands in the conventional manner was ‘unmanly’ and that the only way to push a pram and retain the slightest inch of credibility was with one hand, arm outstretched as far as possible as if to say (in a very, very, very deep voice), “Yeah, this kid’s mine, but don’t worry- I don’t want it near me ‘cos that would mean I like…er…cared for her. Oops. I mean it.”

The fact is, my masculinity is fragile. I’m crap at so many things I grew up believing I should be good at because I’m a man: football, banter, seduction, fighting. I’m crap at all of that and at times, it pains me so. But, like Morgan, and like many other men, I am able to assert my masculinity in all manner of unpleasant ways in order to make up for areas in which I’m severely lacking.

Granted, it’s hard to feel sympathy for me and Piers Morgan , but there is another, darker, sadder side to the issue of fragile masculinity. Consider Jack. Jack is in Year 11 and he’s a good boy. He’s never received a sanction at school. Apart from once. In Year 7 Jack lost an arm wrestle in tutor time. Naturally, the other boys mocked him and naturally, Jack told them all to “Fuck off” before storming out of the room in tears. Jack was sanctioned and for the rest of his school life he was reminded of the time he cried in Year 7 after losing an arm wrestle.

We can’t mock Jack. Yes his behaviour was irrational. But, at eleven years old, society’s expectations of how he should be are already deeply embedded in him. He should be strong. Losing an arm wrestle was humiliating for him, and crying in front of others boys only made things worse. Sadly, becoming an adult does not mean you are automatically ‘cured’ of the shame that not being manly enough brings. I’ve spoken (or written-I forget) of the shame I felt in feeling fear when I was recently threated by another man. It happened two years ago, but still, it’s something I think about every single day of my life. I still feel shame about the time I was scared.

The shame and humiliation that any man or boy might feel at their failure to live up to their ingrained expectations of what it is to be a man, can have seriously dangerous ramifications. As James Gilligan notes, in his summary of the research into male violence and its links with shame and humiliation:

The basic psychological motive of, or cause of, violent behaviour is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation – a feeling that is painful and can even be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.

I think many men will be familiar with this. The feeling of needing to atone for those times you’ve failed to act ‘as a man should’, particularly in situations involving the threat of physical violence to oneself or a loved one.

Gilligan is keen to note that of course, not all men are susceptible to this phenomenon. According to Gilligan, there are certain conditions that make certain men more predisposed to using violence as a means of atonement for earlier failures. These conditions are:

• The individual has not yet developed emotional capacity for those emotions which inhibit violence towards others – namely, guilt or remorse.

• The feelings of shame are so great as to be overwhelming to the point of threatening one’s sense of self. Using violence as a means of preservation of one’s self is the number one priority, superceeding all other alternative modes of action.

• The individivual believes he does not possess the nonviolent means of resolving a given situation.

• Society’s masculine stereotypes are more deeply ingrained in the individual, than in others.

So what am I saying? Am I saying that we need to stop mocking the desperate attempts of many men to assert their masculinity? Not at all.

However, I think as teachers, we do need to be aware that for many of our boys, not living up to masculine stereotypes can have dangerous consequences. We need to think about how we deal with boys who lose the fight, the boys who walk away, the boys who are seen crying. Fragile masculinity should not be seen as something to simply poke fun at because the reality is that for many young people their masculinity is important to them, and it’s this that makes it so fragile. Some things need to be broken. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is one of them. But let’s find a way to take it apart, carefully, systematically, and with considered thought. The alternative – smashing it to pieces- could cause cuts that leave scars.

My Tattoo

Only a few people know this, but I have a tattoo. I got it on a stag-do. It was a stag-do of the kind I’d be uncomfortable with now: it was all aggression, misogyny, macho posturing and degrading chat up-lines. But, I had a great time. So great in fact, that I got a tattoo, emblazoned across the top of my left arm, not just as a reminder, but as a signal to others: I went on a stag-do.

I should point out that this stag-do lasted 32 years and the commemorative tattoo has been 32 years in the inking. I should also point out, of course, that this whole stag-do thing is little more than a clunky metaphor. The ‘stag-do’ is gender socialisation-the way I’ve been primed by my peers, teachers, and the media-to exhibit undesirable masculine traits that some people refer to using the umbrella term ‘toxic masculinity’. The ‘tattoo’ is the way this toxic masculinity reveals itself to me and others through my behaviours, attitudes and beliefs. Like a stag-do tattoo, my toxic masculinity is something largely embarrassing to me now-something there that I try to hide. Conversely, it’s also something that still has the ability to bring a wry smile to my face. Something that makes me feels strong, and powerful. I also have the tantalising knowledge that in certain contexts, if I bear it proudly, it would give me access to things I wouldn’t get were I to keep it hidden. Because all men have this tattoo and men can get you places. They are the inked gatekeepers of this world.

This is the first year I’ve really started to consider myself a feminist, but in becoming so, the tattoo of toxic masculinity doesn’t instantly disappear. There’s no laser in the world that could do that. It’s still there. Let me give you a few examples: I still love listening to rap music that often contains highly misogynist content. Tattoo on show. I still find myself puffing my chest up and staring aggressively at men I consider to be threats to people I care about. Tattoo on show. Only yesterday a colleague told me about a local primary school that had banned ‘The Last Showman’ from being shown in school on account of the fact that the bearded lady’s cleavage was considered sexually inappropriate. Clearly, this is ridiculous, but I explained that in my mind, because of years of watching Baywatch and reading Lad’s Magazines, for me, a woman’s cleavage had sexual connotations. Tattoo on show.


I am doing things a little differently. When I’m not in my car, rapping along to Notorious BIG boasting about his sexual exploits, I cover that tattoo up. A kid asks me if I like rap music, I’ll lie and tell them I don’t like it because of the sexist content. I also recognise that the banning of ‘The Last Showman’ on account of the bearded lady’s cleavage is yet another patriarchal attempt to police women’s bodies. And so, although I admitted that cleavage had sexual connotations for me, I recognise that it needn’t for the current generation and therefore banning this film is contributing to the problem of sexist policing of women’s bodies, rather than solving it. I now recognise that.

I am trying to get rid of this tattoo. I don’t want it anymore. This year I have spoken openly about my distaste for the programme Love Island on account of the way it perpetuates sexist stereotypes. Despite the fact that I love the show, I haven’t watched a single episode this year. This year, I have started crossing the road whenever I find myself walking on the same pavement, behind a woman walking on her own at night-time. I’ve bought copies of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book ‘A Feminist Manifesto in 15 Suggestions’ and handed them to friends and family members. I’ve spoken and written openly about feminist issues. These things are tiny, and I want to do more, I want to have more of an impact, but I am finally trying. Really, really trying.

And trying doesn’t come without complications.

People have suffered far more than I have for the feminist cause, of course they have. I know that. But stuff like this hurts: I’ve fallen out with family members about my beliefs that there is nothing inherently different in boys and girls. Really, really fallen out. I’ve had to become something I hate: a ‘virtue-signaller’- you think I don’t recognise that being all preachy about Love Island, and yet still listening to Eminem is contradictory and hypocritical? Of course I do. Nowadays, I’m permanently questioning myself. I’m nearly always cross with myself. And sometimes I’m ashamed with myself. Like the time last week when I met a guy I knew from the the gym at the pub for the first time. We needed an extra chair so he went and asked for one from a nearby table:

“Hey sweetheart, do you mind if I borrow a chair?”

“Of course you can.”

“Ah thanks darling. Enjoy your day.”

And I just sat there, not wanting to embarrass the guy, and I didn’t pull him up on it. Shame on me, because I think referring to a woman you don’t know as sweetheart is wrong.

And then, when I don’t say something, the next time something like that happens, I feel more compelled to say something in order to atone for past failures. Last week, after the football, I was out with the lads. And by lads I mean friends I’ve known for years. Friends whom I love, friends whom I feel are falling more and more out of love with me, the less I see them, the more I get involved in all this stuff. Friends I want to love me like they used to. When one of the guys said to the waitress collecting our glasses, ‘Well helllooo there,’ I had to say something. And that doesn’t go down too well. I’m becoming the party-pooper. I used to be fun.

It’s not easy being a male feminist, but it’s a lot harder being a female feminist. I know that and I will never forget it.

However, I just need people to remember that sometimes, its uncomfortable wearing long sleeves to cover up a tattoo in hot weather.