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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of a male student in front of his locker.

Our boys need us. Many are getting lost in the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Many are making the wrong choices, and the long-term consequences are troubling. A recent Esquire article pointed out that boys are "more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go to college, and far more likely to abuse alcohol or go to prison or kill themselves than the girl sitting next to them in class."

What can we do as their teachers?

Inspirational Examples

Before the school day even begins, we can rise early, dress like a professional, and model the pride we have for the work. Cal Ripken did it in baseball. He dressed for 2,632 consecutive games. For 16 straight years he showed up, without fail, and did the work that was required of him without complaint.

We can teach them that courage is not revealed in bravado. Sometimes it is demonstrated in the stillness of a Dutch Jewish girl hiding in an attic from the Germans. Sometimes it is in the will of a Pakistani girl who wanted to attend school so badly that she defied the Taliban. We can teach them that even though she suffered a bullet to the head, she survived to become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel prize.

We can coach their teams, lead their clubs, and chaperone their dances. It may even inspire one to become president. Virgil M. Spurlin, the band director at Hot Springs High School, taught Bill Clinton how to get organized and allocate resources while on yearly band trips. "I really felt that my early years with him convinced me that I could organize and run things. That I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I could actually marshal other people in a common effort, and of course if you're in politics that’s very important," said Clinton.

We can teach them that a man should make amends. Alfred Nobel, the man who amassed a fortune by inventing dynamite, specified in his last will that prizes be awarded to those that bestow the "greatest benefit on mankind." A man who made a weapon of destruction left a legacy in medicine, literature, chemistry, physics, physiology, and, of course, peace.

Mentoring Early and Often

We can also teach boys that if they are suffering, they are not alone. As Mr. Antolini says to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye:

You'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them -- if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.

We need to do all these things because the skills of success have morphed in the Information Age. Literacy, not memorization, now reigns supreme. Unfortunately, our boys begin at a disadvantage. Research shows that they are less socially mature, less verbal, and more active than girls when they begin school. Those frustrations, if they accumulate year after year, can extinguish the will to learn.

We need to mentor our boys from the very beginning. We need to teach them so much more than the curriculum. We need to put books in their hands. We need to make learning active and exciting. And while we are doing all these things, we need to get down on their level, look them in the eye, and tell them that we expect the very best from them.

They need to know that we are there for them. They need to know that we are serious about their success. And they need to know that a man honors his responsibilities to his fellow man.

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Davis's picture

Many times, other teachers send me the "naughty" boys that just can't sit still. These young men are often most at risk of becoming lost in the system. Honestly, these boys do not phase me and I enjoy their challenges. I think my women colleagues are fantastic but I still see a need for men to be in our primary schools (teachers, coaches, volunteers). It gives some young men positive role models and a different perspective. I am glad that I found this discussion because it speaks to me both as a male and as a teacher. It helps me put a voice out there as a male that can explain some of what these young men are going through and how they can be helped.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

Brian, I just stumbled across this on my Feedly page, and I'm so glad I did. This is wonderful, and it will make me spend the rest of the afternoon thinking seriously about the kind of man I want my son to be. Thank you.

Agnieszka Gagne's picture

I really liked hearing your perspective. I work in Career and Technical Education, which means that we are constantly focusing on the recruitment of girls in to our STEM programs. Thanks for reminding me that we shouldn't forget about the boys!

KellyG's picture

I enjoyed reading this article. I work in a school where many of our boys do not have positive male role models. These boys are those you speak of in your writing. Those who make wrong choices and suffer consequences. These boys need someone who can model appropriateness and give them confidence that they can succeed!

Joanna D.'s picture

I teach young boys who have made some poor decisions in their life. They are boys who have been sent to a residential setting because of these decisions. I truly love teaching these young boys. They need a little extra guidance and good role models to steer them in the right direction. I do my very best to help them understand that they can be successful. I enjoyed this article, thank you.

Brennen's picture

These words are very powerful. I teach at the middle school level, and I do it just to (hopefully) catch these students from going down the wrong path. My hope is that I can reach them while they are still young before they get set in their ways. Thank you for such an insightful article!

LindaInlay's picture
Recently retired middle school administrator committed to SEL

Glad you wrote this article. I too have been concerned as a middle school educator when boys begin to start the self-identity process .The messages they receive from society, media, etc. are not good about what it means to be a healthy male in our society.

In the past 5 years at my school, we started girls and boys empowerment workshops, creating a safe space for adolescents to share deeply. They have been really powerful. Last year's boys empowerment workshop on a Saturday was very moving. One of our teachers in his first year at our school but a teacher for 21 years said it was the most impactful experience he has had his career. Meaningful connections provided by positive modeling and caring relationships in middle school supports their social and emotional learning and character development. Such experiences them in their journey toward finding out who they are and who they want to be.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY


Thanks for the feedback on the post. I read recently that 80% of teachers are female, showing that there is a need for more males in the profession to give, as you say, "young men positive role models and a different perspective." We must do what we can for them, and reach to do a little bit more, because study after study is showing that the boys in our classes are falling behind and are resorting to destructive behaviors as a result.

Tim Ramsey's picture
Tim Ramsey
Retired School Administrator / Teacher

A very important article! Thank you, Brian! As an administrator at an elementary school, I realized that most of my teachers were female. My goal was to get at least one male on board for each grade level for precisely the reasons you mention in your article.

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