How to be a man

Sky view

This year, my school is focusing on raising the achievement of boys. I’ve learned that supporting boys goes beyond good teaching: we need to show boys more options for how to “be a man.”

Most boys have an idea of what it is to be a man. It’s often a child’s idea of being “hard” or “tough,” “independent.” A principal colleague of mine said he and his staff consciously teach their 9th graders to lose the “tough guy” attitude and just be kids; be students.

This week, I found myself in a conference with a student, Hassan,* and one of my teachers, Matt. Hassan had hit another student who had been calling him a “little boy” and making teasing gestures towards him.

In the past, we might have said, “The next time someone teases you, tell a teacher or administrator.” However, we saw that an 18-year-old boy who sees himself as a man may not want to run to a teacher to solve his problems.

Instead we said, “When someone teases you, you need a way to respond that doesn’t involve fighting. But we know you probably don’t want to go to a teacher because you see that as weak. That’s probably why you didn’t go to a teacher.”

Hassan suddenly laughed, not expecting us to see his perspective. “Yeah, that’s right,” he said.

“So you need an option for when people tease you,” said Matt. “If I’m not enjoying a conversation, I just end the conversation and go talk to someone else.”

“OK,” said Hassan. “But . . . how do you end a conversation?”

Matt and I looked at each other: in our adult worlds, excusing ourselves from a conversation is easy and obvious; it wasn’t so obvious to Hassan. In using Responsibility-Centered Discipline, we’re no longer about easy answers or time-based consequences like suspension; we’re about finding long-lasting strategies to help students regulate their own behaviors.

Matt considered Hassan’s question: “I might say, ‘Oh, I have to go speak to someone else, see you later,’ and then walk away.”

Somehow, this solution didn’t sound quite right to Hassan. “I don’t know, what if there’s no one else around to talk to?” he asked. Good question.

Matt thought more. “You know, you could say, ‘Come on man, we’re not kids.’ You can show him he’s not bothering you, but also show him he’s being immature.”

Matt had done a good job of imitating the way students talk, and the solution resonated with Hassan. Hassan saw that by joking back, he could diffuse the situation and also handle it by himself. He could avoid a fight and still “be a man.”

Later this week, another student said he wanted to drop out of high school. He had turned 18 and it was time to “be a man.” Although his parents wanted him to finish school, he wanted to work 12 hours a day in a convenience store to help support his parents and earn enough money to get married soon and have children.**

This was a more extreme case than Hassan’s. Two male teachers talked with the student. After an hour, the student was politely listening but still refusing to consider another possibility until one teacher said, “Do you want your kids to graduate from high school?”

“Of course,” said the student.

“Well, if they look up to you and you dropped out, don’t you think they’ll want to drop out?”

This idea gave the student pause. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t think of that.” As he started to consider his future children, he listened to other options for finishing his education.

Both interactions were a rich portal into our students’ minds. Showing students other ways to “be a man” will open worlds to them, and may be one of the keys to raising the achievement of our boys.

*The names and identifying features of students have been changed.

**As a school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, in some of our students’ cultures, getting married soon after high school is a common rite of passage.

Photo credit: Milton Correa, Creative Commons License

4 thoughts on “How to be a man

  1. I really appreciate how your staff individualized and tailored conversations with your students & considered what was meaningful on a personal level. Very powerful!

    Liked by 1 person

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