Sunday, 30 September 2012

Should I teach Year 11 boys love poetry? / Teaching girls to put makeup on properly

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a male English teacher in possession of free time at lunchtime, must be in want of male company.

I walked into the staffroom after a gruelling bout of teaching poetry to a class and made my way to the section of the room that had been secretly dedicated to the English staff. They were sat around chatting and eating salads or sipping vegetable soup and conversing about teaching, life and what was on telly last night. I should inform you that the group, at that time, was all women. Often, the conversation did get on to admiring what the other was wearing, but for the most, I was usually able to join in.

I sat amongst the crowd of eight English teachers (what is the collective noun for a group of teachers? A critique. A sarcasm. A kerfuffle.) and proceeded to eat my lunch. Oblivious to the conversation around me, I opened my sandwich bag and removed the sandwich, or, accurately, two full slices of bread with a slice of meat between them. I never cut my sandwiches up and this caused a number of frowns from some delicate ladies, insisting a sandwich must be cut and not left as a whole slice.

Munching away on my food, I could hear bits of the conversation around me.

“What is it with men? Huh. I mean, why do they like boobs and bums and legs?”

Keep eating your sandwich, I thought. There was no way I could escape this minefield of a conversation.

“Come on. It is silly isn’t it? Men are always going on about a woman’s boobs or her legs. Women don’t do, do they?” This was spoken by one of the younger females in the department. The rest of the baying crowd murmured in agreement like a parliamentary backbencher or nodded their head in agreement. They carried on. “What is it? Chris, what do you think?”

I froze. Shocked, stunned and petrified, I had no idea how to get out of this conversation. I was a twenty something that lacked the confidence that some of my age had. I looked down at the remains of my sandwich, thinking how I could escape the answer.

“Come on, Chris. What are you? A boobs man? Do you prefer legs? What about bums?”

Oh, God. I was in meltdown. What could I say in that situation? How could I escape this? The seating arrangements meant that it was quite troublesome to leave and I would have to ask people to move. I saw the fire alarm. Maybe, I could throw my orange and hit it. Probably not, as I am allergic to all sports. Best to say something. My sense of humour had left me and packed up and moved to Cyprus, so I was running out of solutions. If I said bum, they’d think I was a pervert. If I said boobs, it would make them think I was constantly looking at their breast. Legs, nah! If I said eyes, people would be sick and vomit and I’d lose my integrity as I sounded like some romantic poet. If I said ankles, I would sound like some sort of Victorian gentleman, and we all know what they were like. Hair would make me sound like a serial killer, so I went for necks.

“Necks,” I said with confidence, thinking I had narrowly avoided a massive social blunder.

Mouths stopped munching fat-free salads. Lips stopped slurping on weightwatcher’s soups. Every eye looked at me. My interrogator continued: “Necks! You like necks.”

“Yeah,” I replied nervously, “I just find them attractive.”

Every female in the group made a subconscious movement with their hands to their necks. They all looked at me as if they had just uncovered a strangler of English teachers. Strangely the whole conversation just died from that moment on.

From that day on, there seemed to be a lot more scarves in the department and everybody shivered when I said I was teaching ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. Suddenly, for one term, there were no visible necks for me to ogle over, and it was the summer.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a male English teacher in possession of free time at lunchtime, must be in want of male company. For this blog, I want to look at the question of gender in the classroom. Does the teaching of boys differ to girls? Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus, but where are students from? To help me, I have enlisted the help of  my dear Twitter friend Gwen, so that this blog doesn’t become full of sexist and misogynistic comments from me saying that women are better teachers than men – see what I did there!

It’s all about texts
I am male. Not really a bloke’s bloke, but I am male. I don’t do football, but I do do geeky stuff and I am mad about science-fiction. As an English teacher, I have free reign about the texts I can teach and the choices I make. However, I always try to make a balance between boy-friendly texts with girl-friendly texts. Someone at the back pipes up: “Good quality literature supersedes gender”. But, I question, whether it really does?

 I had the experience of being taught ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as a teenager and I hated the experience. I like the book now, after my years of studying the novel and all its glories at university, but I hated the experience then. At 16, I would read everything and anything, but this book I couldn’t. The teacher was brilliant, but I loathed every second, minute or hour spent on the book.

Now, ‘Jane Eyre', which I read in conjunction with ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, is a different story. It was a book that really appealed to me. The darkness, the Gothic horror, the harshness of it all had and has me reading and rereading the book to this day. I hated the bonnets, dances and polite conversation of Austen’s world, yet Bronte’s world was far more appealing. Both books written by a woman, but they had varying impact on me.

I once had a friendly disagreement with a colleague about teaching boys about love poetry. If grown men find communicating their emotions difficult, what chance does a teenage boy have with discussing love poetry? A 15 year old me would struggle to talk about love, as I was sat next to a girl in the class, and I also struggled to tell a girl I knew that I fancied her. So, Chris, what is this poet telling us about love?

We have to be intelligent with the texts we pick. By picking boy-friendly texts we risk alienating some of the girls. ‘Jane Eyre’ was great for proving this point as it was both boy and girl friendly. I’ve made mistakes too. I taught ‘Lord of the Flies’ to a predominately female top set and they hated the book. They got it, but they could easily be dismissive as it was just about boys being violent. Look at some of the popular books in departments and you can see that they often have male and female protagonists (‘Skellig’ and ‘Stone Cold’).

Boys will be boys
My initials are CC and at primary school I got the nickname of Class Clown. Like ‘Lord of the Flies’, there is a constant battle for dominance in a classroom. Usually, for boys it is about humour. The person with the Conch is the person who can get the most laughs. As a Year 9, I spent times in Physics lessons laughing my head off. I know, Physics. But, it was how you got liked if your weren’t the best footballer, or clone from the latest boyband. Get a quick, cheap laugh and people like you. People always like the funny one. That’s why in a lesson the lads will look for the innuendo in text or laugh at the silly costume in a video, or laugh at the naked bottoms in the ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ DVD. It is not survival of the strongest. It is survival of the funniest.

Male Pride
Conflicts that occur in the classroom tend to escalate with boys because of, simply, male pride. They cannot bear to lose face. Boys will rarely back down in a conflict situation, if there is an audience. It is the great challenge to authority. They cannot be seen as weak. I remember my own fights and arguments with my own father.

Take the boy away from the audience and they are able to function as a real human being and not an angry-stomping-fighting machine. The best thing in teaching is ‘sleight of hand’. Look at this funny YouTube video of a cat falling over, while you stamp a wasp to death.

Body Language
We tend to assume that girls are advanced in the subtleties of human behaviour and can spot a dirty look from a thousand miles, but boys are astute. A nod or a raised eyebrow can establish a connection that a thousand words can’t begin to achieve. I remember a particularly student, who challenged me constantly when we first met. Finally, he mellowed and then all I had to do was nod my head as he entered the room. He would then nod back, as if this was some sort of accepted greeting. It said that we respected each other. And, he stopped other students from misbehaving. This was all down to a simple greeting of a nod.

In the moment
I tend to be a ‘night before’ kind of person. I can rarely plan ahead. It is ‘all now’ or ‘at the last minute’ with me, and I think a lot of boys are like me. That’s why homework from boys tends to have that look of 'writing on the bus' look about it. Have you done the work for Jones? No. Lean forward Bob and I’ll write it on your back.

Our whole exam system keeps changing depending on whether girls or boys are underperforming. If boys are underperforming, the terminal exams are wheeled out. If girls are underperforming, then coursework is dragged out. Girls understand that things need crafting. Boys know that if they do this think quickly, then they’ll have more time to play football. Oh, and they like the competitiveness of things.

Not all boys are the same
I don’t like football. I am not like most of the male population. Not all boys are loud, out-spoken and confident. There are so many different types of boy in the class that rarely two are the same. These might be some of the types you might see in the class: the quiet but popular boy; the outspoken intelligent boy; the quiet reflective boy. There are loads of them. Each one has subtle differences to the others. I think it is healthy to not tarnish all boys as the same. And, for some lessons, boys will be totally different things. I know of students being quiet as a mouse in English and then become positively boisterous in a Geography lesson.

Now, this is where it gets complicated: the girly bit.

Teaching girls to put makeup on properly
It is with much regret I have to admit to never having been in the awkward position as Chris’s, rather funny and painful, staffroom anecdote. I am embarking (or should I say, trying to survive) my tenth year as an English teacher and in all that time, we females have outnumbered the fellas. English departments do seem to be rather oestrogen heavy and I don’t think it’s a good thing. The rather interesting issues that occur when teaching an ‘all girls’class spill out into the female adults who teach the subject, a desire to be good, but not always KNOWING that you are.

I have been at my school for about three years now (do excuse the vagueness, I started in January, and, oddly my brain finds it hard to work out precisely how long my tenure has been). I have taught both ‘all boys’ and ‘all girls’ groups at KS4, and for all its old fashioned peculiarities, I enjoyed both groups, and learned a huge amount from the process.

Context is everything, I’m an English teacher don’t you know?  

Two years ago, as we embarked on the all new and sparkly WJEC GCSE Language and Literature courses, I was handed a very able group of all girls. In fact, on paper they were the second set, and due to the gendered setting, they were a mixture of a top and second set. The paper work and data said that they were less able than the boys. (Their results told a different story, te he he). Now the management, in their wisdom, also decided that a) we would start the GCSE at the new timetable rollover in June and b) we would teach the outgoing GCSE English Spec in Year 10 b) the new GCSE Language and Literature at the tail end of Year 10 and into 11. Yes, dear reader, three GCSE courses in two years, bonkers no? With the benefit of the post GCSE English fiasco, it now seems a wise move.
 Potential oestrogen focused pit-falls

Girls can be bitchy
Excuse the potential political incorrectness here, but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a concern when I began teaching this group. I’d taught some of them before in a mixed gender group and as a new teacher at their school, bitchy-ness was their default setting. However, it was just that. Boys can wilfully disrupt as a tactic to ‘put you in your place’, girls use verbal mechanisms, bitchy-ness for the same reason. You will do wonders by modelling warmth and parental qualities here, modelling non-bitchy behaviour for them, so that they can find their own way to that more pleasant place. You will still potentially have a bitchy nut to crack and a fail-safe tactic is to be utterly, relentlessly nice; you can even use terms of endearment like ‘sweetie’ and ‘petal’ and you make it that much harder for them to unleash the bitchy-ness in your direction. As an aside, this is also a useful tactic with your colleagues. You know, the ones who are passive aggressive or just plain aggressive and have all the natural charisma of a bulldog chewing a wasp. Being relentlessly nice to them will wear them down in the end.

Surely, you’ll need a perpetually evolving seating plan?    

The bitchy-ness could potentially lead to fall outs in lessons and a perpetually evolving seating plan. How do you get round this? Use your emotional intelligence. Get to notice and know their friendship groups. Take that into account in your seating plans. In my class, I had the core of the popular alpha females of the year group. When they all sat together, pre-seating plan, I couldn’t get them to work. I had to use the ‘divide and conquer’ rule, while at the same time allowing the well-functioning and productive friendship groups to remain together. Girls place a high value on fairness. Be explicit and state your seating plan is about helping them achieve, not anything personal and they will accept it with good grace.

Id, ego and superego
It is very rare they you will come across a truly egotistical or egocentric girl (or woman for that matter, but crikey, when you do, AVOID, AVOID, AVOID!) if they appear so, it is merely a front to hide a rather more altogether fragile ego. As I said in my introduction, I found my girls wanted to be good at the subject. Many of them already were, but few of them actually knew it. Even the most able student I’ve taught in many a year, did not want to acknowledge precisely how good she really was.
When teaching something totally knew to them, like Spoken Language, or something they are intimidated by such as poetry, an ego massage is required. Remind them what they are already good at. Tell them that they are capable as often as you can ,and, eventually, the ego will listen. Girls are more prone to worrying about getting it wrong; fear of failure can be crippling. Let them fail, safely, comfortably and kindly in your classroom, so that they know how to avoid it in the exam. Park your ego firmly at the door-  work on theirs.

They can see through bells and whistles.
My colleague and I taught ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the same time. The resources I was initially given were based around the RSC drama approach to the text. The boys loved it, lapped it up, but the girls found it hateful. They felt exposed and vulnerable and they were not, by and large, ‘look at me’ drama types. What did they like? Old school didactic chalk and talk. It certainly surprised me and I felt a bit, well, fraudulent resorting to such old school methods. I think, I have a suspicion, that they feel the security of needing to know they are being taught by an expert, and this rather old school method enabled them to see that  once they worked out I wasn’t a fraud, they in turn felt more confident, they became a bit more brave in their own decisions.

Girls can see beyond the end of their nose
From the outset, girls can recognise that they are working towards a future goal. Boys struggle with this very concept, they very much live in the present, they are already pre-programmed to ‘carpe diem’. Why do you need to be aware of this difference? Well, if they already have this intrinsic, internal self-motivation towards a future end goal, beating them with a stick will do you no favours. You MUST recognise their emotional state during times of pressure, you MUST empathise with the pressure they are under and alter your lessons accordingly.

Towards the end of Year 11, they became more and more emotionally and mentally drained by the whole process. My solution? Give them a choice of revision tasks, and a choice of methods to use and get them to work in groups for moral support. Allow them to decide for themselves how best to revise and what to revise. Many, chose to do so at home, often asking for more resources to take with them. Trust them to do the right thing and more often than not, they will.

A final thought
So men are from Mars, women from Venus, boys from Pluto and girls are from Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter. We think that gender in the classroom is a complex aspect of teaching and sometimes gender needs to play a part in an IEP. Oh, look they have got this and that, and also they are a girl.

I have to say, after having taught all boys and all girls groups, I loved the experience of doing both. I found with the boys, and my group were very laddish, that some days it was like watching a sequence from ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. They tweaked each others’ hair gel and at one point, one lad gave another who was the ‘alpha male’ a shoulder massage; my flabber was well and truly gasted I can tell you. The girls were by and large a more co-operative bunch and by that I mean with each other, letting go of, or ignoring their differences for the common good and goals of the class. They are also worry warts and want more reassurance, a mix of giving it, and ‘cruel to be kind’ denying it is needed in order to build up confidence and decision making.

A big thanks to @Gwenelope for her contribution, wise words and help. Please check out her blog at:  


  1. This was a great read - and echoes many of my observations (and experiences) in the classroom. If I get a moment I'll try to write down some of my corresponding experiences as comments here.

    By the way, I think the needs of boys really do need to be attended to at the moment, and it starts with acknowledging that they're different to girls.

    Thanks for taking the time to put this out there.


  2. Thanks for that. I totally agree that we need to acknowledge that boys and girls are different and have different ways of learning, working and behaving.



  3. Hello, my name is Imran and I attend an all-boys school in suburban Manchester. I'm in year eleven, and I'm almost sixteen years old. Fortunately, this isn't all I've ever known: I moved from Southern Africa last year to England.
    And I do indeed agree that present in these classrooms is this competitiveness that kills - it's almost as though it's enjoyable to make others feel to be inadequate. I HATE football, I think it's a waste of time.
    I want to comment on particularly two sections of the post: Boys Will Be Boys, and, Male Pride.

    There is a constant battle, maybe even an epic war that escaped the words of Sophocles for its earnest nature: at my school they (interesting use of the word, I associate the school environment to be a them vs us experience) demonstrate this cut-throat behaviour which previously I had never experienced. Coming from a school in the Bushveld to a school in what people arrogantly call, "civilization" I have noticed so many astounding differences. For example, in SA, if I had a problem with work I could put my hand up and ask a teacher without the fear of being laughed at. Here, I simply cannot for if I do I know that I'll be perceived as weak and in an all-boys school this will just make people think that they have the right to shove me around. It's interesting, because there I felt as though the environment was helpful; here I feel as though I learn nothing and the reason I attend school is because the universe hates me!

    Secondly, do you really believe that when you remove a boy from an audience he will be functioning as a real human being? I have always thought that a boy should act in the interests of the majority's happiness, doing that which he sincerely believes to be moral.

    What is your perspective from a teacher's stance?

    Thank you,


  4. I think you raise some interesting points. Firstly, I think you highlight the issue with perception of teachers in this country. Their value has been undermined for the last decade. The Media. Newspapers. Politicians. I feel this has undermined the value that some, not all, place on teachers. We, therefore, might see this in the classroom sometimes. If the wider world doesn't respect the police or teachers, how is a child, that gets its values from the wider world, going to respect teachers.

    Plus, added to this is the culture of learning. Is it good to learn and know stuff? I think this is a constant battle in education and one that we constant work on.

    Secondly, your point about removing a student from a situation was a little vague. I am not too sure what you meant. The whole idea about removing a student from a situation is to reduce the conflict, or halt a reaction from the rest of the class. I was exaggerating for effect about them not being human. They are more likely to back down when no one is listening and they have had a chance to calmed down a bit.

    Thanks for your comment,


  5. Read this today - the first time I have seen this blog (which I will now mine regularly as I am at the very early stages of my career) - I like the way you recognized the individuality of boys, Xris. I don't think they have a good time of it school. There was a definite latent sexism towards them in English classes when I was at school (over 20 years ago) and I think the odds are stacked against them now.

    I work in FE where my intake consists of re-sitters (who this year have undergone the horror or learning the new spec from scratch in less than a year) and learners who have come from overseas, many having English as a second language, and have no prior experience of the British education system.

    Because of the nature of timetabling, I have had many male-only or male-dominated classes, but I have also taught females and can say there is an equal proportion of challenging students from each gender and from all ages (I also teach adult ed, and can say the mums and wives are as much of a handful at times as the most hormonally complex adolescent )

    I was intrigued by your discussion of text choices. (I am a woman who just could not stand Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and would be loathe to inflict those texts on anyone) I am ashamed to admit that when advising on Scheme of Work last summer, I suggested we leave 19th century texts to term B because 'can you imagine making the boys in engineering and sports have to read 'Jane Eyre! They'll never come back.'' Attendance has been patchy, but that is par for the course at my institution. The nineteenth century component has been difficult, not because of gender, but because texts and the world they portray (of coaches, pocket watches and half crowns) is too remote and obscure for my teens. I think the excerpts with more action (e.g. Jekyll and Hide) have better engaged our learners.

    On a final note - sorry this so wishy washy - you poor thing to have colleagues so utterly insensitive (as well as naive) as to think *only men* talk about body parts and to have that discussion in front of their only make colleague. I can assure you that is not true and i suggest that to be the appropriated retort should such an situation reoccur.


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