Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

What Relationships Mean in Educating Boys

By Michael C. Reichert & Richard Hawley — May 06, 2014 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Pundits ranging from academic demographers to New York Times columnists have weighed in recently on the declining prospects for males in the developed world—a situation the journalist Hanna Rosin suggested in an article and 2012 book might herald an “End of Men.”

Support for such dire forecasts is found in the failure of so many boys to thrive in school. As Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchman note in their 2013 book exploring the gender gap in educational achievement, The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools: “It is a story about females’ real gains, but also about stagnation in education for males that raises daunting challenges for American society.”

Yet in the midst of mounting panic sparked by the gender-gap reversal, there is a story that is often missed. However troubling some trends involving today’s male students may be, these failures to engage in and master schoolwork are neither universal nor normative. The intriguing fact of the matter is that some boys in some schools—in fact, some boys in most schools—are productively engaged and exceed expectations. We might look here for answers to how to engage boys more effectively.

In 2009, the International Boys’ Schools Coalition contracted with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education (organizations with which each of us is involved) to conduct a study of successful teaching practices with boys in 18 schools in six countries. One intriguing finding from the study was that the boys asked to comment on pedagogy (specific lessons) that worked well for them were unable to do so without describing—and appreciating—the teacher conveying it.

For so many of the boys, the issue was not what subject or instructional approach engaged them, but rather for whom they might risk engagement and effort. The unexpected consistency of this finding led to a second, larger global study, this one including boys from 35 schools representing a wider economic and ethnic mix.

The teacher-boy connection does not merely contribute to or enhance teaching and learning; relationship is the very medium through which successful teaching and learning is carried out.”

The second study—also commissioned by the Boys’ Schools Coalition and conducted by the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives—asked boys and teachers to reflect on the teacher-student relationships that they felt to be most effective in their teaching and learning. In written narratives, focus groups, interviews, and workshops, boys and teachers traced clear patterns in the formation both of successful and failed relationships. Successful accounts described how teachers dissolved varying degrees of resistance from students through a variety of relational gestures. In many instances, the resistance was considerable, as boys told of entering new classes in which they regarded the subject with anxiety, because of self-doubt, poor performance in prior years, or the “reputation” of the course or its instructor.

With a striking congruence, the accounts of boys and teachers revealed a number of specific relational features held to be responsible for positive outcomes. The elements composing effective working alliances between teachers and their students, including the necessary gestures teachers must extend in their unique role as relationship manager, can be summarized across many areas of difference, including different countries and cultures, types of schools, types of boys, and types of teachers to reveal the contours of an effective relational pedagogy.

In addition to conveying mastery of their subjects and a clear, humane set of behavioral expectations—the sine qua non for success in student accounts—teachers who effectively established positive relationships with their male students were characterized by: reaching out, often beyond standard classroom protocols, to locate and meet particular student needs; locating and responding to students’ individual interests and talents; sharing common interests and talents; sharing common characteristics, such as ethnicity, faith, and learning approaches; being willing, when appropriate, to disclose personal experiences; being willing to accommodate a measure of opposition; and being willing to reveal some degree of personal vulnerability.

Taken together, the successful strategies underscore two profound implications for relational teaching. The first is that the teacher-boy connection does not merely contribute to or enhance teaching and learning; relationship is the very medium through which successful teaching and learning is carried out. The second implication is that relational success does not depend on unevenly distributed gifts, as is too often suggested in popular school fictions, such as Peter Weir’s 1989 film “Dead Poets Society,” which celebrate the eccentric or specially gifted individual as the only effective relationship-maker in an otherwise deadening scholastic community. The set of skills described in successful narratives can be developed.

Reviewing accounts of successful and unsuccessful relationships sequentially, the most striking difference was the lack of congruence between how boys and teachers saw their unhappy relationships. In contrast to their positive relational accounts, in which boys often acknowledged the difficulties they initially posed to teachers, boys in their negative accounts acknowledged little responsibility for relational breakdowns. Instead, they attributed failure to seven teacher characteristics: teachers who were disrespectful or disparaging; teachers who showed little personal enthusiasm; teachers who were inattentive or indifferent; teachers who were unresponsive; teachers who were unable to control their classes; teachers who were uninspiring or boring; and teachers who communicated poorly.

Quite appropriately, teachers’ accounts of failed relationships often expressed concern about their responsibility for the failures as well as considerable regret when they could not establish a working relationship with a student or students. In fact, both in survey responses and in workshops, their accounts of these breakdowns were often emotionally quite freighted.

But, like the boys, teachers tended not to blame themselves. Their stories revealed more defensive teachers whose concerns with self-management obscured their responsibility for developing relationships; these teachers tended to attribute relational impasse to circumstances beyond their control: boys with unsupportive or difficult families; boys who were unprepared to work; boys who were overmatched academically; boys who were fragile or wounded; boys who succumbed to masculine pressures; and boys who succumbed to other social stresses.

In reviewing these contrasting accounts of success and failure, we can observe that teachers, like students, carry their relationship histories with them into the classroom. They are also vulnerable to unexamined, reactive responses to challenges posed in classroom relationships. What sets successful relationships apart from unsuccessful ones is not the severity of the student problem or the experience of the teacher, but the capacity of the teacher to maintain the role of relationship manager: to monitor the relationship, observing its strains and breakdowns and undertaking repair when necessary.

Difficult boys—disengaged, prone to disobedience and even disruption—can be found in nearly every school. In practically every classroom, some boys turn away from teachers. But whether the boys in the studies got stuck in a rigid refusal to learn or softened to the extent that they could enter into a working alliance in the classroom was largely a matter of whether they had encountered a teacher who managed to reach them. Teachers’ reactions to boys’ masculine posturing—sometimes seeing through it to reach a resistant boy, sometimes yielding to frustration or despair—distinguished successful from unsuccessful relationships. Teachers who formed successful relationships with their students reported positive changes in boys beset by the same—or worse—circumstances as those bearing on boys deemed to be unreachable in the accounts of failed relationships.

Improving the relationship climate in schools can help dispel prevailing stereotypes of developing boys as alienated, unconnected, and unconnect-able beings. Relationally effective teachers demonstrate how to engage resistant boys. The boys so engaged are generous in their praise of and gratitude to their teachers. And the teachers who succeed in forging such relationships count those experiences as the principal reason they continue their work.

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as What Relationships Mean in Educating Boys

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity From Our Research Center Do Educators Think Critical Race Theory Should Be Taught in Class? We Asked
An EdWeek poll shows educators are split over whether children should be taught that racism is systemic and embedded in American policies.
2 min read
Photo of elementary students raising their hands in classroom.
skynesher/Getty
Equity & Diversity Students Embrace a Wide Range of Gender Identities. Most School Data Systems Don't
Districts like Philadelphia aren't waiting for the federal government to make their student information systems more inclusive.
9 min read
Illustration showing 4 individuals next to their pronouns (he/him, they/them, and she/her)
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Equity & Diversity Teachers Are Divided on Teaching LGBTQ Topics
Educators say a dearth of curriculum, lack of training, and fear of getting it wrong can cause hesitation to teach about LGBTQ topics.
7 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP
Equity & Diversity 'You're Not Going To Teach About Race. You're Going To Go Ahead and Keep Your Job.'
Educators in Oklahoma say a new law restricting classroom conversations about race and racism is causing widespread confusion and fear.
6 min read
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom on Nov. 15, 2021
Regan Killackey, AP English Language & AP Research teacher at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Okla., in his classroom.
Brett Deering for Education Week