In last week’s blog, I discussed my predominantly male class–a group of kids whose behavior I’d had tremendous difficulty managing last semester while team-teaching with a female special-education teacher. Now, with a male special-education teacher, the students’ behavior was suddenly much improved. I considered that something Christina Hoff Sommers had suggested in her article–that boys needed more male teachers–might deserve some credence, despite the fact that I don’t inherently like the idea: I believe that boys should be able to be educated by teachers of either gender, as long as that teacher is attuned to their learning needs.
A lot of readers emailed me about this, suggesting alternate explanations to the idea of boys simply needing a male teacher: One reader suggested that these teen boys needed an “Alpha male” to guide the “pack,” and that what I had taken merely as disruption before was actually their various attempts to assert dominance over each other–a valid theory that I had not even considered. Another reader suggested, particularly in view of the fact that the students acted up for my male co-teacher on a day when I was absent (and consistently try to one-up each other for my attention), that perhaps a “mother-father” pair was helping to make them feel comfortable in class. Indeed, when we were reading the Robert Hayden poem “Those Winter Sundays,” about a father’s devotion to his family, several of the kids plainly stated that they had limited contact with their dads, or had no fathers, period. They asked if they were allowed to read the poem and envision their mothers instead. Understandable, then, that they might derive a little bit of security from a makeshift familial structure in our classroom.
One reader asserted that the boys’ unwillingness to listen to female teachers was a sign of sexism, and of incipient social messages they receive to the effect that women have less value than men. While the same thought has crossed my mind, I’ve ultimately come to the view that my students weren’t so much being intentionally disrespectful, as they were lacking in awareness of how to treat a female in positional authority. I think due to several circumstances–my relative youth, the fact that I am shorter than most of them, my casual style of dress (slacks or jeans and school polo-shirt), and the fact that they are in uneasy teenage years when they’re trying to define their own gender identity–the kids may have been confused about how to treat me, especially with respect to themselves. When they saw that my male co-teacher, who is older and taller than I am and…well…male, was treating me respectfully and as his equal, they were able to use his behavior as a model for their own. Had I been the one to leave, and the other female special-education teacher remained in my place, I feel she would likely have experienced the same outcome.
Lastly, I cannot under-rate the importance of a skilled teacher, regardless of gender. I’ve been lucky that both of the special-education teachers with whom I’ve team-taught this year have been knowledgeable and experienced. Many years ago, when I was a new teacher in another school, I taught a similar, over-sized, almost all male special-education inclusion class. That time I was paired with a male special-education teacher. He was a well-meaning, highly educated, and kind person, but his spoken English was so heavily accented as to be difficult to understand, and he had even less classroom-management expertise than I did. When the kids were acting up (which was most of the time, because neither he nor I had any ability to control them), he would give me a “deer in headlights”-look and go to the back of the room, leaving me to manage the situation. Despite the presence of another adult in the room, and a male teacher at that, I felt utterly alone in trying to manage this difficult group of boys. Thus, at the end of the day, the gender of the teacher cannot be the only factor that predicts the success of the students–although, sometimes, it really does help.