A Year With the Tribe: A Passionate Teacher Speaks About Teaching Boys


The following interview details the experiences of a South African teacher involved in an experimental programme in which boys and girls where split into separate classes in their English period. Melani van der Merwe’s experiences make for fascinating reading, and make clear that we all should consider teaching boys and girls differently. This is one passionate, exceptional teacher, and she has certainly convinced me that I should be doing things differently in my class. The interview does run a bit long, but it is thoroughly worth the read. If you only do a few ‘long reads’ this year, make sure this is one of them. Go and brew a fresh cup and get comfy…

(Note: hyperlinks have been added for further reading. Also, please see my links after the interview for more resources.)

Me: You were involved with an innovative teaching programme this year? Tell me a little bit about it.

Melani: One of my colleagues in the English Department read a book called ‘Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work – And Why’ by Michael Reichert. She has always been sensitive to the problems boys face in class, after having helped her son through some of the problems he experienced in traditional schooling. Knowing that I am always keen to look at new ideas in education, she discussed some of the information from the book with me. A bit of research showed that over the past few years all the students who failed a grade at our school were boys, the bottom performers were always boys … and the discipline problems we faced always involved boys. Always. Not regularly, not overwhelmingly. Always.

Me: Clearly something was wrong.

Luckily our headmaster is willing to try new things. All it took was one conversation.

Me: What did your school decide to do about it?

Melani: As a pilot project, we split the boys’ and girls’ English classes in Grade 9. I volunteered to teach all of the boys. It was only after we made the decision to split these classes that I did more in-depth research towards trying to figure out what was really going on with boys in school. It seems that the problem is universal. Schools teach mostly for girls.

Me: That sounds a bit controversial.

Melani: It is. But not in the way people might think. We expect of our students to ‘pay attention’ (read: sit still and listen to me). We expect of our students to find the same things important that we do (the subject matter, their grades). Boys simply do not function this way. Girls do. Almost everything we do in schools is aimed at the way girls learn best. I can’t count the amount of times that I handed out a test where a boy got a C, and I would talk to him about how capable he was of at least a B (and probably an A), all I would get is a shrug. It didn’t seem to matter as much to them.

Me: Or perhaps they’re tired of underachieving and they think nothing will ever change?

Melani: I thought so too. And I was convinced I could do it differently. But first I had to find out a bit more about how boys learn.

Me: Is there really a difference?

Melani: At the most fundamental level boys’ brains are structured differently to girls’. Girls are (mostly) auditory learners. Boys have many different learning styles, but generally they are visual and kinesthetic learners. It is not quite as simple as this, and there is quite a bit of overlapping. But, mostly, boys need to ‘see’ and ‘do’ to be able to learn effectively.

Boys struggle to interpret high-pitched noises, like a female teacher’s voice, and they fall behind very quickly in primary school because they find it difficult to process what a female teacher is telling them. Worse, these teachers will quite often raise their voices a few octaves when the boys aren’t listening, saying things like “Why don’t you listen to me?” and “How many times have I told you…?”

It is more difficult for boys to concentrate on long verbal messages. And an interesting thing happens here, they know they should listen, they really want to listen, but they need to keep moving in order for information to be processed. So they fidget, and tap things. Our first response as teachers is to tell them to ‘sit still and pay attention’.

Me: I have always been fascinated at how quickly boys can learn something new on the sports-field, or in front of a computer. Does that come into it at all?

Melani: Yes! They need to move and to be engaged to learn. One of my starting points was to try and make everything I did fit those criteria.

Me: So then you implemented the programme. Tell me about some of your biggest successes.

Melani: My biggest success is that the boys are excited to come to my class. Since the first week of school, I’ve not had a single boy late for a lesson (unless another teacher kept them in…) They run to English. They jostle and shove to get in through the door. My boys start shouting things two classes away from my door; “Ma’am, are we reading today?”, “Ma’am, I did my homework!”, “What are we doing today?”. I don’t dare be late for a lesson myself, or have them wait for me while I am finishing off something else. The excitement and noise is just incredible. This has never happened to me before. Generally, kids have always been happy to be in my class, but the boys’ sheer exuberance when they come to my lessons this year is something that I still cannot quite believe.

They know that I genuinely care about them. And they care for me. Being able to build relationships like these has been one of my greatest successes in fifteen years of teaching, and I would not have been able to connect with them so personally in a mixed class.

There have been smaller, but I think no less significant, successes. Like the boy who finally had the courage to speak in front of the class. And the boys who have realised that they are not ‘dumb’ or ‘bad at school’ but that they just need a bit more time and effort to achieve more than even they thought possible. There are boys who finally feel accepted, even with their little personal idiosyncrasies, and not because I designed it that way, but because I just don’t have the time to worry too much about their ticks and foibles, there is too much else I have to do to get the class going in the right direction. The fact that one of my boys cannot learn while wearing shoes is not something I can be bothered with… and have actually quite come to like.

There have been days where I had to go home and cry because a boy came to me to say thanks for giving him a chance. We can do all of this in mixed classes, but it is easier in a separated class since they don’t feel judged for doing the things boys do, but rather feel that they are just a little bit special. On my birthday in October, they were all waiting for me at the top of the stairs and when they saw me they sang out the loudest ‘Happy Birthday’ I have ever heard. I was moved to tears. But of course, you cannot cry in front of boys!

Another one of the great successes, for both boys’ and girls’ classes was our decision to introduce them to Shakespeare by doing a simplified Graphic novel. The boys got ‘MacBeth’ and the girls ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I distributed the graphic novel on the last day of school before a long weekend and got a tweet from a mom telling me she could not get her son to put down the book long enough to do his chores or other homework. By the Tuesday when we came back to school the majority of the boys had finished reading their Shakespeare. They were then all assigned different roles to read and all I heard from them as they came bouncing to my class the next lesson was “Are we reading our roles in MacBeth?”. Assigning books suited to the girls’ and boys’ different tastes worked remarkably well. Interestingly, in the girls’ classes, pro- and anti-Romeo groups quickly formed…

Me: Which sounds a bit like it could be symbolic of what some of your colleagues felt about your boys-only classes. What was their reaction?

There is a perception among a small number of teachers at my school that we only ‘play‘ in my classroom because it is so noisy and busy. I have replaced some of the chairs with gym balls, the boys can move the desks anywhere they like. They can also stand or sit on the floor. From the outside it looks like chaos. Some teachers don’t take what I do as seriously as I do because the impression is that all we do is having fun.

Many others were very supportive, but would say things like ‘I don’t think I could do it myself’. But I think every teacher can – and should.

Me: How are the girls’ classes doing?

Melani: The girls have taken to this idea just as much (if not more) than the boys. Their classes are calmer, everything is neat and clean and well-structured. And they get to talk about those things that they generally do not get to express in front of the boys. Girls who will not say a word in other classes talk during their English lessons.

Their marks are just incredible. As much as the boys have improved, they’ve improved more. They find the boisterous boys distracting in other lessons, now they can finally work and talk without being judged and teased.

It also smells a great deal better than the boys’ classes.

Me: We’ll let that one go (no pun intended)! Was there anything that didn’t work as well for you?

Melani: It takes a great deal of patience to teach just boys, and I am not naturally a patient person. You just have to accept that you will have to repeat yourself, that you will have to allow them more time to digest information and that it will take more time to settle the class to the point where work can be done.

It is also difficult to accept that content matters and that presentation means far less to boys. Being able to do work electronically means that at the very least I can read everything they produce. I realise that our girls do not all have perfect handwriting but it does seem to be far worse with the boys.

Keeping up my energy just to stay ahead of a bunch of boys is also tough. It just takes so much more to steer a class in the direction you need to go. The tiniest distraction will result in at least one of them getting lost. And then I have to go back and rescue him.

I have to put so much time and energy into making these classes work that I can’t help but feel that my other classes do not get as much out of me as the two boys’ classes. After a boys’ lesson I am often drained. Coffee helps.

Initially, I had some, very little, but some, opposition from parents. It is difficult to do something radically new and to get everything right. And I didn’t get everything right. I made many mistakes and I had to be answerable for my actions. Like most people, I feel my failures far more than my successes and it is difficult not to get despondent when things don’t work. I have to add that as the year progressed, and I got better at teaching these classes, the opposition from parents disappeared, and I can now count some of these parents as my allies. Now, towards the end of the year, I’m getting quite a few lovely messages from parents who deeply appreciate what I have done for their sons.

Me: You have also been trailing a 1:1 iPad programme this year. How did this influence the way you taught your boys?

Melani: I haven’t done nearly enough with the iPads. Boys love technology, and they love finding things out for themselves. The lessons where I used the iPads have been some of the most successful and enjoyable I’ve had this year. It’s the whole ‘being actively engaged’ thing I mentioned earlier.

Teaching with iPads forces you to create lessons that are question-based, rather than content driven. Even the most boring work becomes more interesting when they have to find the information themselves.

Starting both programmes at the same time was more difficult than I anticipated, and I had some of my biggest failures here. I was new to using iPads myself, having only used an Android device for a little while when we started. My most crucial mistake was thinking that using an iPad is about using apps. The real worth of an iPad is in internet connectivity and what I call the ‘coolness factor’.

Unexpectedly, the fact that I knew so little had one major pay-off; often the boys had to help me figure things out. This immediately placed us on a more equal footing and contributed to the relationship we built throughout the year.

The boys also love designing on the iPads. They are generally not too keen on creating things like posters, which the girls love because they get to make something look pretty. When you ask the boys to design the same poster on the iPads they are really in their element. They submitted some incredible work when asked to do it electronically. It locks into that well-developed spatial analysis part of their brains and gives them an opportunity to really excel.

Me: Are you running the programme next year? If so, what changes do you want to make for next year?

Melani: Yes we are! And I have many tweaks I want to introduce: Our set-work this year (‘Ostrich Boys’ by Keith Gray) was a massive failure. I thought it would work because it was written specifically for boys, but a few crucial things counted against the book. The descriptive passages were just too long for the boys. They really don’t care about what the street looks like. They want to know what happens. I also expected of them to read parts of the book at home. They just fell asleep. Also, the book was interrupted by a holiday. Continuity matters more than I realised. In the end, they felt no connection with the characters. Next year we will do ‘Fahrenheit 451′ by Ray Bradbury. I’m hoping that this book will give us the opportunity to explore some ideas boys care about – plenty happens, and there are few long passages about the characters’ emotions, rather their emotions are expressed in actions. Which is something else about boys, they don’t talk about how they feel, they do what they feel.

We will do more work electronically. Boys are uncomfortable to put ideas down in an indelible manner – I think this is why so many of them still prefer working in pencil. Electronic work allows them to change what they are saying as often as they like. In the coming year I would like to do away with paper as much as possible.

After all the research I have done, I made a rookie error. I thought all the boys would all respond in the same way to what was happening in class. Since most boys prefer groups, most boys prefer noise, most boys prefer collaboration and most boys prefer visual and kinesthetic learning, that is how I started teaching. Of course, some boys don’t. And a few of them got lost in all the noise and excitement.

Next year they will have a choice. The classroom will be more clearly divided and they can choose where they want to work. In the ‘quiet corner’ (I will have to find a better name!) boys can work individually. They will also be able to use their iPods to block out distractions.

More will be expected of the boys next year. I learnt very late that they respond to high expectations. I accepted excuses for work that was not done well enough, and for grades that were not good enough, because I was still comparing them to the girls in the class next door. For every test and exam my first response was to find out what the girls’ average was. The girls next door will not be our problem in the coming year. I will emphasise every boy’s responsibility to do his very best in every single task they are given. My next task is to keep better track of each boy’s individual performance, rather than paying attention to an overall average. It works on the sports field, and I will expect the same attitude in my classroom. I want to keep track of each boy’s individual scores, not their averages, but for the skills they are learning. It will take some doing and I will need to learn new ways of analysing marks, but for every task I want to give the each of the boys an ‘analytical score’ and an ‘interpretation’ score. I will even have a ‘recall’ score, for things like remembering grammar rules and details from novels. Our aim will be to improve these scores individually, rather than worry about class averages.

Me: Why don’t more teachers want to get involved with this?

Melani: There are some good reasons for not separating the classes. It is so easy to create the impression that boys need extra help, which can exacerbate the problem. It seems sexist to treat the two genders differently. At first glance, you seem to be perpetuating gender stereotypes.

It is also more difficult to teach only boys. You have to change everything you do. I had to change the way I speak, the way I listen, the way in which I present work and the way in which I structure my lessons. I even had to change the physical appearance of my classroom (making sure that there were few posters in the front, re-organising the posters so that the colours don’t clash, etc.).

There is still a part of me that believes that we should be able to teach our boys properly in mixed classes. And the majority of teachers will agree. I have learnt that it is actually easier to teach only boys, but the perception is still that it will do more harm than good.

Added to this, the girls are still seen as the ‘good’ kids, and most of our problems are from boys. It just seems like an insurmountable task to be faced with a class full of ‘problems’. Since most of the discipline problems teachers experience are from boys, combining classes will mean that you have to combine a number of these boys, who are often carefully separated, in the same class. You end up with classes where about half the kids have either discipline problems, learning difficulties or other problems. The fear is that the stronger boys, your ‘A candidates’, will get lost in the noise.

Sadly, most teachers just cannot see the immense benefits that come from splitting the classes.

Me: What have other schools experienced who have tried the same thing?

Melani: There is very little information available for schools in South Africa, so most of what I have been able to find is from other schools around the world. My impression is that results are very mixed. Some schools have been able to implement similar programmes with great success. Boys are happier and their overall results have improved.

All schools did not find the same effects, though. I have spoken to a teacher locally who was involved with a similar programme at primary school level. It was abandoned because the teachers could not make the necessary changes, and the boys were told that they were too noisy, too boisterous, and eventually that they were ‘dumb’ for not performing at the same level as the girls.

We need to realise that there are no quick fixes for the problems our boys face in school. We need to drastically change how we teach and how we treat all students, not only the boys.

It is easier to make these changes when the genders are separated, but that is not enough. We have to change what we do, and how we do it at a more fundamental level.

Me: I find that inspiring! What have you learnt from teaching boys?

Melani: Little things matter, but don’t sweat the small stuff.

Commenting on a boy’s success in a different sphere of their lives (especially in sport) has a great influence on how a boy reacts in your classroom. I have learnt to keep track of what happens in their lives outside my classroom walls. I have always believed that seeing a child as an individual matters, but the boys have taught me that if I don’t pay attention to what happens to them out there, it means that I don’t care about them.

Remembering birthdays and that a big match is coming up is important.

I have learnt to share my food with them. My tuck-shop account is something to be seen to be believed.

Many things that I thought mattered, really don’t. It doesn’t matter if they eat and drink in your class. In fact, allowing a boy to eat is far better than having a hungry boy who can’t think about anything but how hungry he is.

It doesn’t matter if your desks aren’t neatly arranged. It matters that a boy is happy with where he is sitting, and that he was allowed to choose where he would be happy to sit. Even if that means dragging desks across the floor every lesson.

It doesn’t matter if work isn’t as neat as I would like it to be. It matters that he really tried to answer every question, that he tried to get it right and that he made sure it was done on time.

It doesn’t matter if his shirt is untucked. It matters that a boy is there and excited to learn. Nitpicking only makes them feel that they are not good enough.

Deadlines must be determined collaboratively. When I want to mark work should matter, but their other activities should also be taken into consideration.

I have learnt to plan my teaching schedule around the other things that are happening in their lives. Doing new and difficult work in the last lesson before a sports match is an exercise in futility. I keep the new and difficult stuff for the days when their lessons are earlier in the morning.

I have learnt what democracy in teaching really means. What happens in my classroom is about what I want from them as much as it is about what they want from me.

One of the most important things the boys have taught me is the power of humour. You cannot take yourself too seriously when faced by a class full of boys, and allowing them to laugh at your mistakes and idiosyncrasies allows you to treat theirs just as light-heartedly. Suddenly, being wrong is not that big a deal, and they feel more comfortable in taking chances.

I am still learning to be more patient.

Me: That sounds like something we should be doing with all of our students. Have you got any advice for teachers and schools who want to try something similar?

Melani: You cannot force teachers into taking on a class of boys. They have to be willing to make all the changes that come with teaching them.

Accept the boys for who they are. The aim is not to make them something they are not, and should not be. The aim should be to once again make them happy to be at school, and to help them discover the ways in which they learn.

Me: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with me. I wish you and your boys (and girls) well for next year!

Melani: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share. I can tell you that we’re extending the programme in 2014 to the other junior grade… and perhaps into different subjects. Very exciting times ahead!

Melani teaches English at an independent co-ed school north of Johannesburg, South Africa. Catch up with her on Twitter @MelanivdMerwe

Also, please peruse my collection of resources on Pinterest

And finally, please read one of my first blog posts on the issue of teaching boys here.

(All images are taken from ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ by the late (and greatly missed) Bill Watterson. The cartoon series is also a great favourite of Melani’s)

I would love to hear what you thought of this article. Please feel free to enter a comment below.

Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/SeanHCole

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6 Responses to A Year With the Tribe: A Passionate Teacher Speaks About Teaching Boys

  1. Pingback: Left Hand of Darkness: How I Learn (+Ten Blogs You Should Be Reading) | : the readiness is all

  2. It mostly makes me sad… I brought issues up like this over eighteen years ago in my student teaching program. I was admonished by the instructor for being sexist for not realizing that girls had it harder in school. Even back then the vast majority of students in special ed, prison etc… were boys.

    But I’m glad it’s finally starting to get some attention. This is a great read. Thanks for posting the interview. It gives me something to mull over for the next few days-weeks-months.

    I also wonder if she thought there were any downsides to the experiment, such as was there anything “missing” from the boys in the absence of girls. Or something like that.

    • Thank you for your comment. In response to your question about whether there was anything the boys may have missed out on by not having girls in the class, Mel said her gut response to the question was ‘no’. Remember that they still had mixed classes for their other subjects. Upon further prodding, she mentioned the following:

      1) There was a very shy boy who was usually ‘adopted’ by a group of girls and made to feel part of things (girls tend to do this more easily). However, after a few months, he came out of his shell as was just as boisterous as the others.

      2) A couple of the higher-achieving boys liked to compare themselves to girls. All that happened here is that they simply compared with the other class.

      3) Some of the boys did not cope well with the noise and organised chaos. They would have preferred a more sedate environment usually associated with having girls in the class. This year, boys will have a choice to plug in earphones in an attempt to overcome this problem.

      4) The biggest problem, though, was that some of the girls wanted to be in the boys class and vice versa, simply because they preferred particular set works. There does not seem to be a tenable solution to this problem.

      PS: Our latest Grade12 results have just been released in South Africa, and there seems to be a growing achievement gap. Unfortunately, it seems that things will have to get worse still before the authorities start to address the problem.

      Thanks again for your support.

  3. janine says:

    Mom of 4 boys – teacher too – u r awesome

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