There are a myriad of programs, policies, and practices that drive our approach to educating boys; all of these contribute to the building of an inclusive and safe culture and to the development of morally conscious, thoughtful, and happy boys.
This development of a culture that helps boys to develop healthy understandings of the many ways to be a man has required a revision of the way we think about boys’ education in general. In the past, boys’ education was thought to have purpose because of fundamentally “essentialist” assumptions about the differences between boys and girls. For example, many popular books about how to best educate boys tag into the idea that boys’ brains are somehow different than girls’ brains, and this serves as justification that in the absence of girls, teachers can cater to the unique needs of boys.
What has emerged from the scholarship over time is the understanding that gender identity is primarily a “construct” rather than something fundamentally essential. This is to say that individuals, be they boys or girls, seem to perform their gender based on their personal experiences. So many factors seem to participate in how individuals derive their unique gender identity, and these include family dynamics, what they see in the media, and how the people in their respective worlds behave.
These new insights into gender identity have significant ramifications for all boys’ educators. This is because we are discovering that what we say about masculinity, and how we say it, has an impact on shaping boys’ understandings of what it is to enact healthy masculinities. The use of the plural here is intentional because there are many ways to be a man. Some of those ways are what society define as “toxic” in nature. Obvious toxic attributes can present as being disrespectful to others, aggression, and arrogance.
We are finding that boys’ school cultures that are overly hierarchical, conservative, and hyper-rational are not healthy for young men. Additionally, the celebration of the hyper-masculine and the hyper-competitive serve to reinforce conventional and ultimately limiting notions of masculinity. One example of our school’s response to these understandings is our dedicated time to participating in the arts. These weekly sessions provide boys with opportunities to explore the arts in settings that encourage creativity, freedom of play, and the imagination rather than focusing on grades and academic expectations.
We continue to engage in a careful review of the language we use; our culture, rituals and symbols; the way we teach boys to use technology; the way our health and wellness initiatives support healthy understandings of masculinities; the way our classroom practices impact boys’ understandings of themselves; and, the way we help our community to understand our vision for boys’ education. Our understandings of gender as it pertains to education will continue to inform our approach and seem to provide an affirmation that done well, all-boys' education can be a force for good in the world. As a community, we are collectively responsible to look carefully at the way we educate boys, and to interrogate past assumptions about what it means to be educators of boys. There are so many opportunities for us to engage in the future such that our students become their most human and compassionate selves.