Behaviour - Standing up to the teenage cavemen

Female teachers can face a tricky task in tackling boys' sexist behaviour – but facing the problem head-on is a must
23rd January 2015, 12:00am


Behaviour - Standing up to the teenage cavemen

I was fresh out of university, teaching English to a class of 18-year-olds, almost all of whom were male. It was not a good combination. Students stared at my behind as I walked by. They asked me out on dates. They used words like "slut" and "tease" when they talked about girls. And they tested me time and time again in the classroom.

As a female teacher faced with inappropriate behaviour from male students, you have a split second to react. It's easy to be emotional and take offence, to overreact and judge a situation to be more loaded than it truly is. It's also easy - and plain wrong - to underplay it, to accept behaviour that you should clearly be condemning. Finding a balance is tough and I've made the wrong decision plenty of times. But trial and error has taught me a lot about how to address rude boys in class. Here is my hard-won advice.

Show your human side

I find the best way to prevent inappropriate outbursts in the classroom is to reveal myself as a person who genuinely cares about students' learning. Once they have a connection with you, they are less likely to try to undermine your authority. In fact, you might find that many students start to defend you when others act unsuitably.

Do this by showing your personality: talk about your family or your interests outside school and demonstrate that you are similarly interested in your students' lives.

Fake it until you make it

If a student does behave inappropriately or make a rude comment, do not let it throw you off. The most important rule is not to give these students the reaction they are looking for.

Whatever the comment, you must react in an unemotional way and refuse to take it personally. Maintain your composure and think your course of action through carefully.

Know your students

By remaining composed, you allow yourself a few moments to assess the situation. The first thing you need to work out is what you are dealing with. Students' behaviour in such situations usually falls into one of two categories.

First of all, they may be looking for an argument. Only a few years into my teaching career, a 16-year-old male student made an insulting comment about my shirt in front of the class. He had been pushing back against my assertive style in the classroom for months, but this comment was heard by the entire room and I was hurt by it. He was clearly trying to assert his dominance.

After composing myself, I realised that the situation required a quick, direct and brief answer, something along the lines of: "That comment is unacceptable, get on with your work and I don't want to hear anything like that again." His remark was not bad enough to warrant a serious punishment but it did need addressing. Humiliating or embarrassing him in this situation would have been counterproductive; such a response sends the wrong message and brings you down to the same level. If the student continues with such behaviour, then it is time to escalate.

Alternatively, they may be trying to be funny. Students are still learning about boundaries and an inappropriate comment may in fact simply be a student getting their "pitch" wrong. In one class, we were playing Jeopardy and I allowed the students to come up with their own team names. One group of rambunctious boys chose a slang term for female genitalia. They had got away with using it in previous classes because the teacher did not know what the term meant, but I did.

I could have thrown the book at them, but rather than being malicious the name was merely a misguided attempt at humour. The best thing you can do in this situation, I have learned, is to react with humour yourself, using quick (but appropriate) sarcasm to make it clear that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable.

Master the hallway moment

In the first scenario, the comments were offhand and minor. In the second, the situation was misjudged rather than malicious. Of course, there will be times when a pupil's behaviour exceeds this level and then you need to escalate.

That does not mean losing your cool. I've learned that we cannot expect to teach our students respect if we don't treat them with it, even in situations when they don't seem to deserve it.

If a situation demands more than a quick remark, then you need a "hallway moment".This is one of my favourite methods of discipline. It sends a message to the class that you have considered a student's behaviour to be unacceptable, but their ego is not threatened because the details of the conversation are kept private. It gives the student the benefit of the doubt and enables you to truly listen to him before making a judgement. It also allows the student to connect with you on a personal level, away from the classroom environment in which they may feel that they have to impress their peers. Only then, if the situation requires it, should you bring the full force of the school's behaviour policy to bear.

However you choose to tackle inappropriate male behaviour, ensure that you always say something. Not confronting such remarks gives licence for them to be made again, not just to you but to your female colleagues and peers. You owe it to other women to show your students that it is unacceptable every time.

Rebecca McGrath teaches at Westfield High School in New Jersey, US

What else?

Make sense of behaviour issues with this detailed report on potential causes and remedies.

Explore research into the best ways of encouraging good behaviour in the classroom.

Get back to basics with this Teachers TV video on behaviour strategies for new teachers.

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