“Bigger in height, louder in volume and determined in spirit”

Many of you will remember my chapter, in the third UKFEchat guide book; What I learned from my worst lesson. I openly recalled the excruciating memory of my level one plumbers, who “exhibited some of the most challenging behaviour that I had encountered very early on in my teaching career.” I shared the memory of this group being “bigger in height, louder in volume and determined in spirit” to do whatever they wished.

They have returned; reincarnated.

How could that be?

I will apply some context. I recently resigned from my teaching post at a large further education college in Essex. I was given an interim opportunity to teach IGCSE and GCSE English, in a male-dominated school, whose students are studying on STEM related courses. These learners are between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Unfortunately, a lot of these teenage boys are dispirited, disengaged and full of disdain. They remind me in so many ways of the “most challenging inheritance” I had eagerly but blindly received from a colleague of the past (you have to read my chapter to get the joke).

Faced with this challenge and poor experiences of teaching this type of learner,  the universe called to answer my professional development needs. Within a couple of weeks of being with my new old learners I was able to attend an in-house training session, delivered by an external facilitator, on raising the achievement of teenage boys. The session could have not been more timely.

I had landed, in a new role, mid academic year, ready and gearing to take sixty learners through their level two English qualifications. This in-house training session afforded me the opportunity to land like a plane. I received a change of attitude and speed; I gained a real understanding towards challenges that accompanied teaching boys.

The session began with a series of statements. Take a look. How would you answer? True or false?

  1. Implementing strategies that work for boys will not cause a negative impact on girls
  2. Underachievement of boys is often associated with poor literacy and language skills
  3. A strategy that works for one boy will not work for all boys
  4. One the whole, in school, we tend to treat boys and girls differently
  5. Boys take up much more teacher time in the classroom than girls
  6. Boys respond well to teachers who are passionate and enthusiastic about their subject
  7. White, British, FSM boys are more likely to underachieve than any other group
  8. Boys achieve better when they are closely monitored by teachers
  9. Lesson objectives and long-term overviews of learning are especially important for boys

The task was intended to be a quick thinking; first response counts activity. I scanned the list of statements; I then gifted each qualifying box with green ink.

Once I had deliberated over my answers I eagerly anticipated the facilitator’s confirmation as to which statements were truths and which were mere myths. I found the answers to these statements perplexing. They were all apparently true.

I questioned the validity of some of these statements because not all of them needed to be gender specific. For example, question six, “boys respond well to teachers who are passionate and enthusiastic about their subject.” My initial judgements were, “well, so do girls.” I did not think possessing ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ attributes needed to be exclusive to the education of young men. It was at this point I carefully considered the title of my bestselling book; Genderism and the English classroom.

The final statement which suggested that ‘lesson objectives and long-term overviews’ are more important for boys was also a notion I criticised.  Surely they are equally important for both sexes as boys and girls alike as both genders access an identical education system.

Despite my controversial views the statement above allowed me to reflect and make a sensible comparison between my recent experiences with teaching boys and those I had previously encountered.

First I identified some internal pressures that teenage inhibit achievement in boys. In no particular went like this: Sex. Football. Sex. Social media. Sex. Friends. Sex. School. Sex. Puberty. Sex.

I next contemplated the following questions: Why is it that boys are most likely to struggle with literacy and language? Why do teachers, treat boys differently to girls? How can I plan, devise and create lessons which improve motivation in teenage boys? (How do I handle a teenager who repeatedly defaces their English book with penis artworks?)

I do not have the answers but I am really keen in reading into what research has evidenced, in education studies of teenage boys in the British education system. If anyone knows of notable studies in this region, please point me in the right direction.

What I do know is that many of these learners have troubling family lives, negative schooling experiences, autism, ADHD. They are battling with the need to be socially accepted and trying to fit into the social norms and burdens that society places upon them as young men. Surely this is bound to affect their levels of engagement in the classroom?

I’m happy to have embraced this “challenging inheritance” with positivism.  I’ve returned back to basics and decided to refresh the behavioural management area of my teaching practice. Managing Very Challenging Behaviour by Lousia Leaman has become bedtime reading.

I’ve also engaged in constructive and regular dialogue with some really  experienced colleagues to find new and innovative methods of managing behaviour and reengaging the most disengaged boys.

It is still early days. I am learning, developing and reflecting every day.  I have mirroring levels of determination as my learners. I just choose to use it differently.

I am “determined in spirit” to play a crucial role in combating and stamping out the culture of disdain and apathy towards English that currently exists among these young men and many alike.


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