The Issue - Boys have feelings too, so help them to show it

29th November 2013 at 00:00
It can be difficult to get young men to talk about their problems, but tailored pastoral care encourages them to express themselves

Teenage boys don't really want your help. They don't do emotions. They don't do revealing chats about their lives, and they definitely don't want to talk about their families, relationships or social life. Any attempt to have a "quick chat" is rebuffed with aggression, embarrassment or comedy of varying degrees of success.

At least, that's what people would have you believe. In reality, although they may never admit it, boys need - and want - as much pastoral support as girls. Issues of identity, family, social inclusion and relationships are not gender-specific, but helping boys requires a different approach.

I gained first-hand experience of this when my co-educational high school decided to take a novel approach to having a slight gender imbalance in one of the year groups. Boys outnumbered girls significantly enough to make every class a little male-heavy. After much discussion of how to tackle the issue, it was decided that an all-male class would be formed, leaving the rest of the classes balanced. The school was interested in trying new ideas, so the opportunity to test the theory that single-sex classes could work was irresistible.

As a young male teacher, I was made responsible for this class's pastoral care on a daily basis, through a 15-minute session each morning and additional support during the week. Although I was willing to embrace the opportunity, I had no idea what to expect or do. I had always worked in co-educational schools so had never thought about pastoral care for boys specifically; I had always simply reacted to what came my way from either gender.

As it turned out, the specific challenges were evident from the start. The boys quickly established a hierarchy that manifested itself in several forms, including bullying, over-competitiveness and general off-task behaviour.

This was obviously a behaviour management issue, but I felt that it stemmed from other problems that we could deal with in pastoral sessions. These issues could be overcome by building a strong sense of community within the group and creating a supportive learning environment. My hope was that this would improve relationships between the boys and foster mutual care and respect.

My first move was to give roles to students. Not everyone took on one of these "jobs", but they were varied enough that any boy who wanted some responsibility could find an outlet for their skills or abilities. For example, "subject leaders" were the go-to students for help and assistance in a specific subject, while "homework reminders" were responsible for collating weekly homework and assessment tasks, then publishing them on the whiteboard each morning.

The boys took their roles seriously. The jobs gave them a sense of belonging and ownership of the class's success. Within eight weeks, we had minimised most of the off-task behaviour and were seeing a positive change in the attitudes that many of the boys had towards one another.

This foundation enabled the boys to become very close, and I did my best to become part of the group by attending as many of the co-curricular activities that the students were participating in as possible. Observing the boys outside the classroom proved an important aspect of pastoral care. Once I showed an interest in that area of their lives, they began to show an interest in my own life. I talked to them about my hobbies, interests and family stories, and they shared theirs.

We built a rapport, and this proved crucial to helping the boys become as willing to discuss their fears and problems as the girls. The stereotypes I mentioned at the beginning of this piece were not entirely eradicated, but by ensuring that the boys had respect for one another, and by redefining the relationship between student and teacher, we created a much more open forum for pastoral issues to be raised, discussed and addressed.

Admittedly, having the boys together in one class helped. But I learned that pastoral care for boys requires a much more reciprocal arrangement than is perhaps needed for girls.

By the end of the year, my relationship with the class had become so close that they played a key role in my proposal of marriage to my partner. Everyone got stuck in and contributed to a banner I used to pop the question at the bottom of a ski field in front of 500 people. Thankfully, she said yes.

Carl Condliffe is a physical education teacher at Wellington High School in New Zealand. Find him on Twitter at @NZPEteacher.

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