Reflecting on … “Boys Will Be Boys”: Inadvertently Reinforcing Gender Expectations.

Like over 80% of teachers, I believe that boys and girls should be able to perform equally in any subject and should have equal opportunities so to do.  I don’t use the “gender” column of my class data sheets to adjust expectations.  And, of course, I offer equal support opportunities to both genders.  So gender gaps have very little to do with me or my classroom practice.  And I can relax and breathe easy.  Perhaps there are other colleagues whose attitudes are less modern and who bear a greater share of responsibility for persistent gender gaps in attainment.  Though that it hard to believe as most overtly echo my own views.  Far more likely it is the children themselves and the attitudes, behaviours and expectations they bring to the classroom.  The way they are programmed by wider “society” into certain gender roles and behavioural patterns that affect their educational outcomes.  And the gender gap exists throughout the education system.  So that must be it … it is society’s problem, nothing to do with me and I can relax.

The only downside to reading “Boys Don’t Try?  Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts is that it challenges such assumptions.  This can be discomfiting.  To learn that the 80% of teachers who say boys and girls should perform equally in any subject then went on in interviews to show gender oriented attitudes about writing, behaviour, oracy and mathematics gave pause.  I began to think about staffroom comments about “boy-heavy” classes and “not your typical” boy/girl (e.g. those making subject choices that did not fit gender stereotypes).  Of course this may just be a drop in an ocean, or behind closed doors and so it is still possible to think it may not matter.  Not much.

But then you’re challenged to think about all the little choices you make as a teacher, all the little ways in which gender expectations trump individuals; some encouraged by those around and above us.  As I continued reading, I made a list of my own sins in this regard and some of the questions it raised:

  • Using gender to plan lesson seating and as a tool for behaviour management, and thus having different expectations of students’ behaviour before I even meet them. Could this then lead to different reactions for the same behaviour based on gender?
  • Being surprised at the number of boys when walking into a (voluntary) revision class. Did I express this, even inadvertently, and reinforce the expectation that these sessions were not “for” boys?
  • Expecting far more boys in a leadership detention. Did this change the nature and tone of my conversations with students; more of a shrug at the boys’ tales of bad behaviour, greater disappointment and time spent reflecting with the girls?
  • Turning a blind eye to gender-reinforcing “interactions” and “banter”, especially as students get older. Is an ironic eye-roll really enough to challenge the reinforcement of gender norms and the low-level harassment or incursion of their personal space that some students have to endure in the school environment?
  • Adjusting expectations of a “boy-heavy” class both in terms of behaviour and outcome. How far am I therefore driving behaviour and attainment differences?

The list goes on, but the point is that, when I really thought about it, and as I paid close attention to my own practice in subsequent weeks, I began to notice gender-oriented comments and behaviours my own practice and that of those around me.

Of course, the question remains how far this matters.  Our students have had a whole lifetime of gender-oriented behaviour training from society, peers and the media.  Is my expectation that there will be more boys in this week’s after school detention really going to do any significant damage?  Especially as it is a prediction that I could bet my life savings will prove to be true, without much fear of going homeless.

But the sheer prevalence of such conditioning is one of the reasons our modelling and expectations do carry such power.  If boys live in a world where academic success is feminine and damage to their esteem is fixed by asserting masculinity their behavioural choices can be individually rational but destructive over the long-term.  If tests, rows, anxiety, pressure and stress all create a drive to “masculine” behaviours of messing around, not revising or working hard, and getting into trouble then every time we reinforce the underlying expectations we are reinforcing these behaviours.  And, in a time of increasing anxiety in all our students, boys and girls, when we reinforce behaviour and study norms in our students, we perpetuate and increase the anxiety levels of those who feel that they don’t, can’t or don’t want to fit in.  Which is probably all of them.

Each time we, as teachers, model, perpetuate or reinforce these behaviours it probably is just a drop in a vast ocean.  But then the first 5 minutes of, say, my lesson next Tuesday period 5 is just a drop in the ocean of their learning.  I still intend to plan it and make it the best I can.

Because by developing ourselves, and consciously, actively challenging these expectations we as teachers have the power to be more than a drop in the ocean and to promote positive change.  Of course, habits are hard to change and I have already made slips.  But we can learn from these and reflect on how to get better.

And of course my list is just the behaviours I have noticed in myself.  One of the most powerful feedback tools for teachers is that of peer observation. A  peer can help you probe further into your gender practices and expectations.  They can focus their observation on interactions it is very hard to track ourselves whilst teaching.  So my next challenge to myself is to ask a colleague to use our observation time to really probe gender interactions in my classroom.  I want to know:

  • Do my questions fall equally on boys and girls? Not just in terms of number but in terms of challenge level of the questions?
  • How long do I give each gender to answer, think and reflect? Do I move on more quickly or leap in with the correct answer when boys get questions “wrong”?
  • Is my behaviour management consistent – do I notice and address off-task behaviours when they appear in boys and girls?
  • Is my tone and voice adjusted by gender? Am I communicating different expectations with non-verbal cues such as body language?

I suspect some hard answers but they will be useful because, as Pinkett and Roberts argue so convincingly.  This really matters.

As further reading, of course I recommend “Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools” by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts.  Now available in our CPD library.

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