Boys will be Boys! – let’s not label them

Boys will be Boys! – let’s not label them

Can you remember the teacher who brought out the best work or kept you most interested and motivated in school and schoolwork?

This is a great question to ask your mentee or any adolescent you are working with and the response will provide you with insights into how this young person is developing as a unique individual.

When I was 8 years old my class teacher had a significant impact on my life. Miss Wolfe was tough, thorough, kind and compassionate and set clear boundaries. She was not interested in a second-rate effort and expected all her students to do their best. I did well academically in those days and learnt, at this young age, how to study and prepare for Tests, whilst also having plenty of fun in the classroom. Miss Wolfe had a beautiful Alsatian dog, Alannah, which she occasionally brought to School – yes, this was allowed in those days! We all loved Alannah.

There were other teachers during my Primary or Junior School years that kept me interested in school work, but Miss Wolfe was special. When I underwent Cancer operations, even though I had moved up the School, Miss Wolfe monitored my progress, wrote me a letter wishing me a speedy recovery and kindly gave me a book of animals which I kept for about 50 years! Miss Wolfe’s attitude, care and compassion, had a significant impact on my decision to become a teacher myself.During my last couple of years of schooling Dave Hiscock, my History teacher, had a significant impact on my education journey.

Dave’s teaching methods were far ahead of his time. We researched topics, exploring and considering different viewpoints and then discussed our findings as a class. There was no regurgitation of information, no political correctness or fear of discussing the heresy of apartheid, yet rather the importance of having an open mind and looking at all topics objectively. In a way we were being taught the importance of being independent learners.

Yet it was the day that Dave passed me in the school grounds and warned me, in his typically forthright, no-nonsense manner, that if I didn’t knuckle down to produce some consistent work, I could well fail History in my final year of school. Too much sport, not enough focus on my academic studies and Dave called it as he saw it.

My response? I took up the challenge, my History result being my best result in my final year and I went on to major in History at University, became a History teacher and was mentored by Dave for a number of years during the early stages of my teaching career.

My reflections reminded me of two interesting books I read a while ago, both having a specific focus on boys. The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre and Reaching Boys Teaching Boys – Strategies that Work and Why by Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley.

While the emphasis of these books was on how boys are being educated within a school environment, there were many comments made by the authors that underline key aspects of the spirit of mentoring.

Peg Tyre quoted psychologist Michael Reichert, “… boys base their behavior not on what we say we want them to do but on what we do ourselves as men, the kind of behavior that is modeled for them by authority figures. The kind of behavior that is ratified and held up for praise in their community.”

So, an interesting question to ask a mentee would be: “What are you being taught at school about how to think and how to behave as men?”

A great deal of research points to the fact that boys want to be respected rather than liked and, indeed the authors of these books reiterate that what works with boys is baseline rigor, respect and mutual trust.

What do these qualities look like in an adolescent boy’s life? Well, they would include, not in any particular order:

  • the effective use of a diary;
  • learning how to get organized and stay organized;
  • not spending more than two hours a day on gaming (though more recently researchers are suggesting less time per day);
  • developing good grapho-motor skills so they can clearly express their ideas;
  • a variety of activities  and structure – clear rules and directions;
  • the involvement of dads;
  • linking the relevance of what they are learning to their lives;
  • not humiliating them in public;
  • good sleep and a healthy diet;
  • scaffolding them while they try something and fail so they can rebound and try again;
  • acknowledging and recognizing them – a quiet gesture or a great fanfare in front of their peers when they succeed (always mindful of being culturally appropriate);
  • encouraging connections with mentors, guides, caring teachers or other significant adults;
  • relational teaching – where boys are known beyond a seating chart, a test score or a semester grade;
  • lessons that address something deep and personal in their lives: their sexuality, their character, their personal prospects in the world beyond school – novelty, drama, surprise, active learning, movement, teamwork, competition, risk taking.

Reichert and Hawley suggest that “where boys were emotionally and intellectually engaged by their teachers, they convey a sense of being transported, exploring new territory, and feeling newly effective, interested and powerful.”

The authors remind their readers that the brains of these young men are still developing and we must be mindful of this when we are assessing their progress or lack of progress, showing an understanding that most 14 and 15 year old boys are unable to make judgments like adults, as their Pre-Frontal Cortex area of the brain is still developing, remembering too that boys reach cognitive efficiency later in life when compared to girls.

Peg Tyre reminds readers that “often a boy’s gruff exterior is masking confusion and fear – boys desperately need connections with each other and with adults,” hence the importance of boys having constructive, thoughtful relationships with well-meaning, non-judgmental mentor cheerleaders who can journey with them on their path to manhood.

Reinhert and Hawley quote  a Senior School student who shared the impact a positive teacher had on his adolescent journey: “She never gave up on me, even though I kept on having difficulty, and finally, after many morning and lunch extra help sessions, a light finally turned on in my mind and I understood everything … she never gave up on me and always believed that I could do it … she went the extra mile to help me, and that’s what makes this school so great.”

Slade (2002) points out that the boys think the adult world is not listening and not generally interested in their view, their wellbeing, their educational needs and outcomes. The mentoring relationship allows a significant adult to step into a young man’s life genuinely welcoming him as a unique individual with gifts and talents to be nurtured and encouraged, displaying warmth, humor, passion and care, always being fair and using the time together to share personal stories which might inspire and motivate the mentee to become the best he can be.

I shared a great clip on Facebook recently which highlights how talented our young men are and how they can respond when given the opportunity to do so. I wonder what those young men, now young adults, are doing with their lives?

Mentors must remember that, when they meet their mentee, how they communicate will be critical to the development of that mentoring relationship – physical presence, ease or tension, posture, tone of voice, distinctive mannerisms. Will the mentee feel secure, welcomed and connected?

As a mentor, how would you respond to two questions your mentee might ask you:

  1. Do you know me?
  2. Are you interested in me?

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook or on Instagram or contact him through his YES! website