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Equity & Diversity Opinion

What Relationships Mean in Educating Boys

By Michael C. Reichert & Richard Hawley — May 06, 2014 7 min read
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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

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