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If boys struggle to learn from women… then why?


When my daughter started at the primary school she currently attends, I noted that not a single staff member was male. I was aware that primary teaching is an area where women dominate by numbers, but I was still slightly surprised that there were no men working there at all. During her reception year it emerged that one of the school’s class teachers was leaving, and her replacement, it later transpired, was a man. The school hadn’t especially gone looking for a man, but a good male candidate popped up, and they appointed him.

I was interested by the reaction from parents. Most of them seemed happy with the turn of events, but the most vocally pleased about it were the parents of boys, who clearly feel that having a male teacher is important for male children, in particular. I recall a conversation with a mother of boys – a lovely woman – who was especially happy with the news. She explained that her son has had some trouble settling in school, and his teachers say that he doesn’t listen, pay attention, obey. What happened next came as a real shock to me; she said: “When they tell me that, I feel like saying “well it’s no wonder, is it, with all you women nagging him all the time?'”.

I am not singling this woman out for criticism. Like I said, she’s a warm, lovely woman, very friendly, and she’s raising sweet boys that my daughter is fond of. But I can’t forget what she said. This wholesale criticism of women teachers came from the mouth of a woman, and that, to me, is indicative of just how ingrained into all of us is the tendency to denigrate women in a position of authority, and of how much more forgiving we are towards men. I suspect I might in the past have done this sort of thing myself, even.

The opinion of that mother, though not expressed quite so directly by other parents, was, I think, broadly espoused by many of them. And all of this got me thinking a great deal more about the topic of boys’ education, which I am aware has generated academic reports and myriad newspaper articles in which journalists ask questions like “ARE WE FAILING OUR BOYS?”, point out that male children aren’t generally doing as well as girls in school, and emphasise the need to do something about it. I agree that it’s a shame if boys aren’t keeping up with girls, but in my opinion, blaming women isn’t going to fix the problem.

Now I’m not saying that everyone in the world thinks that women, or the ‘feminisation’ of education is to blame, but judging by the opinions I came across reading news articles and blogs on this, it’s clear that a great many do. They say that boys need strong role models, that they need authority figures, that they can’t learn from women; that women tell them off for doing the things that come naturally to them (being naughty and boisterous is the preserve of boys only, obviously) and that this is damaging to them. Their conclusion is that we need more men teaching boys.

I think the idea that noisiness, naughtiness, and physical roughness are the natural behaviours of boys, not girls, is fallacious, and I’m also pretty suspicious of the very confident assertions of those who maintain that boys and girls learn in entirely different ways, not least because I’ve recently been reading the work of Cordelia Fine, who argues pretty convincingly against the existence of inherent differences in the male and female brain. But I’m going to put aside the fact that I disagree with the belief that boys are intrinsically different from girls for the moment (and therefore the argument that they may need to be educated differently), and I’m going to put aside all the other considerations that possibly need taking into account when considering our current problems with education of boys. Not least the one that no matter how hard a girl works and how well she does, the boys will still mostly go on to higher paid jobs. Ahem.

I’m putting all that aside to just concentrate, for a moment, at what’s leaping out at me here, from my conversations with other parents, from my reading of articles in papers like the Daily Mail, from my perusal of internet blogs written by the concerned parents of boys. When they say that boys need, and don’t have, these strong role models, these authority figures, that boys don’t do well under female educators, what they are saying is this: boys don’t respect women enough to learn from them.

Why are we accepting this status quo? Why are we just nodding our heads and agreeing that boys can’t be expected to respect and obey a female teacher? If these boys have no respect for them, surely it’s because we (their families, or society) are teaching them that it’s okay to disrespect a woman?  That it’s fine to not be afraid of upsetting her, to laugh at her when she gets cross, to think that actually, she doesn’t really know much, isn’t an expert, and clearly doesn’t know as much as a man.

I can not and will not believe that this attitude is somehow innate to small boys. I think it begins when they hear adults admonishing with phrases like “don’t be such a girl”; when their parents have one rule for them and another rule for their sisters; when they watch the television and see a preponderance of female characters created to be ridiculous, compared to a wealth of male characters created to be taken seriously; when they are encouraged only in traditionally ‘boyish’ pursuits, and persuaded to regard traditionally ‘girlish’ pursuits as demeaning. Disrespect and dislike for women pervades our society, and it would appear that boys are absorbing those messages at a very young age.

It seems to me that me that there is a choice here; we can try and persuade men to train as teachers and go and teach boys themselves. Or, we can try harder to ensure that boys respect women. To be honest, both would be nice.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About caro unlimited

Editor, publisher, reader, writer, thinker, lefty, feminist, mother. Also likes walking, recycling, and whisky.

8 comments on “If boys struggle to learn from women… then why?

  1. Jason Preater
    February 24, 2013

    Excellent post, really well expressed. I also believe there are loads of myths in the feminine vs masculine debate that we should examine. My favourite primary teacher when I was a kid was a man, but he was softer and more nurturing than some of the old battle axe women; the headteacher and authority in the school was a wonderful, strong woman. There have been dramatic changes in our world over the past few decades and I think that moving away from patriarchal views has been one of the great achievements. Not only can I be softer as a man, but my girls, my daughters, can be vibrant and powerful. These are things to celebrate and I don’t believe that treating boys like little princes is helping them or the rest of the world one bit. They need to wake up to the world!

  2. exsugarbabe
    February 24, 2013

    My son learns better with god teachers, male of female, he hates the macho male teacher he has at the moment yet last year he had a tiny woman who showed more power with a glare than macho man ever does with shouting and threats. I think differences between girls and boys are magnified, some teachers prefer girls and I think it’s because they are bought up to be more obedient, later as teenagers these girls rebel like crazy. Bring up children to be whatever they like and respect both sexes, lots of these problems would go away.

  3. bodhimoments
    February 25, 2013

    Excellent, thought provoking article. I agree that boys ( and girls) benefit from both male and female teachers. If someone says boys need male teachers, does it necessarily follow that they disrespect female teachers? Your friend may only have been exaggerating her point that there were only female teachers at that school. And yes, it does the boys no good to hear such an attitude.

    I have been reading “Mothers Raising Sons” by Nigel Latta, and I find his viewpoint very pertinent. Girls and boys have more similarities than differences, and they need role models of both genders. Teachers at schools are only one example of such role models.

  4. caro unlimited
    February 25, 2013

    Thanks for all your comments.

    @ bodhimoments I think it’s good for boys and girls to have teachers of both sexes. I also think it’s only natural that boys would look to men for role models. However, I don’t think a male teacher is essential to a boy’s academic or social development. I think we *are* raising boys to have more respect for men than for women, and I do think that’s a factor in their apparently better responses to male teachers.

    I don’t necessarily think that someone who thinks we need more male teachers automatically disrespects female teachers (I myself think more male teachers would be a good thing). But I think there’s a lot of female-teacher-disrespecting about!

  5. Pingback: Don’t Be Such A Girl | Bea

  6. Kai
    June 24, 2013

    Awful he is not listening because he is absorbing from media and others around him that women don’t require the same respect as men.
    He thinks its optional and like most children if it’s something he can not be bothered to do and he thinks he can get out of it he will.
    And as for women nagging all the time?
    That is life men nag women nag it’s a large part of adult life in relationships and work.
    Allowing him to think he can ignore certain people for certain characteristics will only end up with him in trouble and you to blame.
    What if he’s older and resists arrest from a female police officer and his only defense was

    ‘Oh but she’s just a nagging women why should I care?!’

    You should deal with his respect issues no before he picks up more bad habits like homophobia, racism etc

  7. Pingback: If boys struggle to learn from women… then why? | Caro In The Country: Caro Moses' blog

  8. Pingback: Don’t Be Such A Girl | Caro In The Country: Caro Moses' blog

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2013 by in Bea Current, Bea Family, Bea Feminist and tagged , , , , .
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