When my son was little, I lost natural hair color over stressing about his day at school. I don’t know if his initial school experience was typical or not, as he is my only boy, and I merely have his one experience to go on. But, I am starting to think it might be. Although the variables might change from boy to boy, there are certainly some parallels to be found when it comes to educating boys. When it comes to boys and their indifference- and lack of interest in, the whole school experience.
My boy fretted and worried about school from the get-go. His first day home from kindergarten, I waited patiently under the old maple, picking at the moss growing along the spreading roots. I watched the bus go by, and then watched as it swung back again, up our side road, dropping my son off at the end of the lane. And, as eagerly as I chased him down to hear stories about the first of all experiences at school, he equalled my enthusiasm in stridency, storming past, eyebrows in a furrow. Pounding feet against the stone walkway, as he stormed into the house. What a mother fail for me. How I wanted to sit in the late summer breeze hearing about all the wonderful things he’d done, all the magical experiences he’d been part of. He’d have none of that foolishness. He had some unwinding to get to, and sitting with me waxing poetic about his school day, was not on that list of after-school priorities.
Grade 1 was even harder. He clung to my leg for the better part of forty-five minutes. He was anxious, worried about making friends, scared of being alone, frightened of me leaving. I held one babe on my hip and clasped another toddler with my free hand. Three little bodies stuck to me like crazy glue. And while I tried to un-peel his little hands, I thought to myself, “There’s got to be a better way.” I knew this was awkward. I knew there would be eyebrows raised. And I felt that pressure to let go his hand, even as my mother instinct was telling me, “No! We’re both not ready for this.” And yet, I let his hand slip first, turned and walked away. Hoping for the best.
Each year got both easier and harder. He began to distance himself from me…no more clinging. But there were new worries to be had. There was the whole adapting to classroom structure to fret over. Homework routines to make and then stick to. And the issue of his making and finding friendship, to add to the mother lode. Not to mention the usual childhood rite of bullying to endure, that helped to establish the playground pecking order. Somehow, he often found himself on the bottom of that pile-up.
And woven into each additional year was the stress of performance anxiety. He was not a behaviour challenge inside the school setting. Indeed, his teachers raved about his smarts and his ability to focus. But, there was something awry that I just couldn’t seem to put my finger on, at the time. It seemed to be the combination of his trying to find his place in this new world of norms, along with trying to please both his peers and the adults around him, along with the very high expectations he placed on himself. All combined, becoming a triple threat of trouble. Perhaps the most taxing of all was the pressure he placed on himself to stay in tip-top academic shape, as that was often the only area he was able to truly control about his school experience. And in doing so, school became difficult at times. Tedious. Even dreaded.
And although my son has succeeded academically, there are many ways in which I feel he has fallen through the cracks. Because he is prone to performance anxiety on a personal level, yes. But also because in a more general way, he is a boy. A boys and school can often make for an unstable combination.
Although I am a mother, I am also a teacher. And I have gone through my fair share of navigational mishaps in trying to find my way as a teacher of both male and female students. I have made many mistakes along the way. But, in gaining experience, I have come to believe that there are some ways in which the school systems could better service boys, and girls for that matter. Helping students who don’t fit the usual mold better adapt. If it was a perfect world, and I was Big Boss of the Education System, here is what I would change. (And might I add, many of these beliefs/ideas about learning are already at play in some awesome classrooms of colleagues and fellow teachers)
Students need choice. Students need as part of their day, time built in for choice. Time where they decide what their learning will look like. Time when they set the learning outcomes and strive to meet their goals.
Students need responsibility. Students need to learn to follow through on choice. When they make a mess, they clean it up. When they make a mistake, they initiate the change. When they do it wrong, they find another way to do it right. When they make a poor choice, they are given instruction on how to make a better choice next time.
Students need flexibility. When students are starting to zone out, students need options. School is hard work. Some kids can only last for a short period, and they need a break. Some kids need physical activity interwoven into every part of their day. Or they can’t survive. Some students only learn when they are out of a chair. Some kids can’t handle a desk. Some kids need to run. Kids need lots of different things to learn. We need to get better at helping them cope with their differing learning styles.
Students need less structure. I did not say ‘no’ structure, I said less. When I think of a well-balanced, healthy home environment, I think it is an ideal learning atmosphere. In a typical home, at any given time, a child can be on the computer fine-tuning their problem-solving skills, all while one sibling is measuring ingredients for an after-school microwave concoction and another is practicing their tuba. Or, if you will. While one is resting on the sofa, texting messages to a friend and another is sketching designs for the latest fashion show. What the home environment does for learning is allow for freedom from rigid structure. There is structure, it is just more fluid. And learning takes place in a less rigid environment. It just looks different than traditional, formal education.
Students need more student-led learning and less teacher-led instruction. The days that talking heads are the ‘be all and end all of instruction’ have already gone the way of the do-do bird. Sure, there is a place in instruction for lecture-style learning. Sure, some students learn best in a structured, traditional classroom setting. But, many students don’t. These students need application and hands-on experiences, they need trial-and-error, risk and adventure, opportunity and choice. What everyone needs is the opportunity to put into practice what they are learning. And what better way to do so than when following an interest initiated by said student themselves.
Of course, these all rest on the commitment of teachers to best teaching practices. And past that, teachers rely on school boards enabling them the time, resources and space to follow through on these best teaching practices. And school boards rely on government, and so on and so forth. Change is always hard coming.
Little by little.
And sometimes it’s the simplest things that matter the most. Like an upper-elementary boy being allowed out of class to come down to the Kindergarten room to color. Like an over-active boy in Kindergarten being allowed time to go for a run in between learning goals. Like students being given time to dance in music class. Like showing kids that physical activity counts as an important part of learning.
And its these smallest of changes that often make the biggest difference in the life of a child.