This is just one persons perspective. I am certain you have your own.
For the past sixteen years I have been an educator, either as a special education teacher or dean of students. During that time, I have worked with many students with trauma, mental illness, and significant behaviors. I have been able to make connections with both boys and girls, but as a male educator, which in overall comparison to females there are few, I have noticed that more and more boys need male role models.
Over the years, I have seen boys become extremely disruptive within the school setting, which often transfers to getting into trouble in the community setting and home. The types of behaviors I have seen are varied: possession of drugs, distributing drugs, cursing at staff, threatening staff, threatening violence against the school, bullying, sexual assault and harassment, throwing school furniture, destroying property, fighting, bringing weapons to school and school functions, gang activity, truancy, refusal to do assignments, and the list goes on. If students are capable of doing it, I have probably seen it.
In the community, I have heard of young men that I have worked with involved in gang violence, shoplifting, armed robbery, physical and sexual assault, and a plethora of other crimes, even murder. At home, I have heard from parents that their sons are often violent and they are scared of them.
One morning, when I was a dean of students, I was called by a frightened mother who told me her son, who had just returned from a juvenile prison, was tearing up her house and refusing to go to school. I knew the student well, so she asked if I could come over and talk with him. I left my office immediately and went to their home. The young man did not know I was coming. I did not call the police, and she did not because the young man most likely would have fought the police and been arrested. My goal was to intervene peacefully. When I entered, he was swearing at his mother, throwing items around the kitchen, and had punched a couple of holes in the wall. His mom was in tears. I said, “I am going to enter the kitchen and try to calm him down. Just stay here.” I wanted to bring another administrator with me but they were all on some retreat in San Francisco. I asked another teacher, who knew the student well to come with me so I wasn’t alone. As mentioned, my purpose was to deescalate the situation and give his mother some respite. At that moment, I was not a dean of students but a mental health worker, which often became the case. I approached the boy and he immediately stopped, his eyes became big, then suddenly his shoulders sank and he started crying. He was embarrassed, scared, and was stuck. He didn’t know what to do with his emotions so it came out as violence and anger. I managed to calm him down and get him to school, where he stayed with me in my office to talk until he was ready to enter class.
The majority of school shootings are young, white males. We often point a single finger at gun control, which may be a factor, but we fail to look at many of the actual causes that build throughout the years and lead to these young men to commit horrible violence. Our prevention needs to start early, in the home, and we need to spend more time at schools identifying and using proactive approaches to mental illness. Whether we like it or not, schools have become a place where we need more mental health workers to intervene with kids. Depression and anxiety have become a crisis.
Since I left my job as dean, I have been informed of many students being incarcerated. The crimes range from murder, abuse, fighting police, theft, gang violence, sexual assault, and the list continues. Many young men, and yes women, that I have taught over the years have ended up in jail or prison. Every so often, I have gotten messages from parents, and sometimes phone calls from the jail, to speak to and help these young people, or to write them a character letter for the court.
From my experience, most of these young men are missing one person in their lives, a father or positive male role model in the home. Further, many come from impoverished backgrounds, where their single mother is struggling.
Now, for the record, I am not saying that single mothers cannot raise strong boys with good morals, and I am not saying that boys without a male role model will become criminals. My mother, being my main caretaker and role model, was invaluable to my upbringing. However, the facts are facing us that when boys do not have a father or a positive male role model in their home, they often struggle in their lives, and that struggle is being displayed in disruptive and violent behavior. In middle school, I often felt like I was losing control as well as the start of high school, and it came out in disruptive behavior, which is why I feel in many ways I can relate to many of these struggling boys.
What I have seen over the years is that when schools talk about behavior and equity, they fail to turn their focus to poverty and lack of a male presence in the home. I take this information directly from my experiences, being in the trenches, working and talking with kids and parents. Poverty and a lack of male role models is a common theme to many of the boys that I see struggle in the school and community.
I often have had educators, paras, teachers, and administrators, ask me my thoughts on dealing with the significant behavior issues that are increasing in schools. I do not claim to be an authority, but I have some ideas, again from experience and talking directly with students. That last part is important. We do not sit down enough with students and talk about the issues in the school and what they think should be done. Instead, we guess. We have data but we still guess. We do not include them in discussing the responses to their own behaviors, and helping them understand why the behavior is taking place. All behaviors are communication from the student. Boys that have not developed the appropriate strategies tend to communicate through anger.
My thoughts and response to behavior are the following. Fully restorative schools that do not hold students accountable are failing. Just listen to the staff and students, the schools are horrible. I have witnessed it firsthand. On the other side, schools that are highly punitive do not work either. There has to be a balance. To build community and trust with students, they need to understand the harm they have done to others and how to repair it. This restorative practice can be powerful if done appropriately and not forced. I have seen too many administrators and teachers try to force students to participate in restorative practices. Sure, it looks good on paper, but if both parties are not willing, a restorative does not work. Also, schools that say they are “fully restorative” use that as an excuse not to give actual consequences to kids. Again, the data looks good but is it effective? I would say the answer is a clear “No.” If it were effective, there would be positive change and it would be working. The data may show that but teacher and student experiences tell a different story. That is, if the staff and students feel comfortable with telling the truth.
When boys do not understand that there are consequences for their actions, they end up like many of the young people I spoke of earlier, in trouble with the police, facing legal consequences, and then think they should be let go free. This is not how life works and we are setting kids up to fail. We need to prepare students for life after high school, and our actions have consequences. Teaching behavior is as important, and for many children more important, than teaching academics.
I have also seen administrators that are very punitive. They want to suspend or expel children as a behavior intervention. All this does is lose trust in the student body as a whole and make the kid feel like you do not want to help them and throw them away. I have heard of many schools having “Saturday school” and detentions. There is no evidence that this works. My first year as a dean, and to a lot of pushback, I got rid of our detention room. My first question was, “Has giving students detention changed their behavior?” It did not, so my next question was, “Are the same kids always being placed in detention?” The answer was, “Yes.” I took the little room that was meant to punish kids away. If it doesn’t work, be done with it. Many were angry at me about that. Again, in the world of education, we often do the same things over and over and expect a different result. Common sense will tell you if something doesn’t work, then be done and move on. Now, detentions may work for the straight laced, straight A student that has never been in trouble. Still, I doubt if it did little more than frighten them, and why would we want to frighten young people into behaving?
My school had about thirty students wandering the halls, skipping class, and when approached by a staff member to return to class, the students would blow-up, start cursing out the staff members and get away with it because they didn’t return to class or have a consequence. There were many roadblocks from certain staff members and admin when it came to holding students accountable. Instead, kids were allowed to wander the school and nothing was done. I put into place the following: Approach the student and find out why they were missing class. We would then walk them back. If they refused, they were placed in a supervised room where they could work, their parents were called, and they would have to come up with a plan to return and stay in class. If they refused to do this, they were sent home because we can’t have kids just roaming the hallways being disruptive. If they chose not to be in class, they could go home and try again tomorrow. It worked! Once the students found out what would happen and word got out, the numbers went down drastically. The wanderers diminished, all but an extreme few. After a month, I was approached by the admin and they told me this approach was too punitive and had to stop. Another flip flop back to the old ways that looked best on paper. I stopped as requested and so did the campus support. Within one week, the hallways were full of roaming, disruptive students. I banged my head against an immovable wall a few times and decided I could only do what was in my control, create relationships with students and hope the interventions I did had an impact.
A common sense approach to behaviors is best and not that hard. There has to be a line. If students are fighting, threatening and cursing out staff, selling or using drugs, bringing weapons to school, having sex in the bathrooms, bullying, and refusing to go to class, it’s time they get a consequence and go home, only to return with a parent for a meeting to discuss next steps. You can give a student an appropriate consequence and still teach them and restore the harm they caused. I have seen it done. The problem is, in the world of education, we flip flop back and forth with little follow through and nothing gets done. We spin a very large wheel, hoping for the best. We remain optimistic but not realistic. That will be difficult for many to read and accept but it is true.
I was sitting in a leadership team meeting my first year as a dean and the high school behavior data was on display. In an accusatory way, many admin said there were too many suspensions and consequences given. I shuffled in my lukewarm seat, one where I hadn’t sat very often, and said, “Let’s pull up the reasons.” The behaviors that students were held accountable for came upon the screen: Fighting, weapons, drugs, and threatening staff. I let it sink in for a moment and then asked, “Would anyone else do anything different? If so, please tell me.” The room was silent. My assistant superintendent and mentor who was next to me leaned in and said he agreed with my consequences. Students and staff need to feel safe in the building and sometimes that means kids who cause significant problems need to go home.
So, going back to boys. There is not a lot the schools can do about boys being brought up in a fatherless home. It is beyond our control. However, if we start to mentor and teach these young men at an early age. If we show them a different way to display and cope with their emotions, and we never give up on them and build trust, maybe we can break the cycle. Perhaps by the time they reach adolescence, they will learn how to take those emotions and turn them into something proactive. Maybe if we teach them about accepting their circumstances but not becoming a product of their environment and changing their predicted outcomes, we can start to make a difference. We could focus on mental health and have some real conversations with students, not watered down talk because we think we might “trigger” them. Young people can handle more than you think.
What the schools can provide for boys is strong male role models that are not afraid to tell them that they care about them, be vulnerable with their own emotions, and hold them accountable when needed. Yes, much of what we do in the schools is undone when the student is not with us. They are home, witnessing a world in which they try to navigate the best they can. Many are being hand held and enabled and bailed out for their inappropriate actions. This is not helpful. A male role model can help young men build the resilience it takes to survive the world. They can provide structure and show empathy and compassion.
Students are watching. They see the people before them clearer than we think.
Students, I have found and been told directly from them, want a safe school. They want structure. I would often find out what was happening or about to happen in the school, from students. They know before the adults do, and that’s why if we build strong relationships, we can prevent many problems.
I made many mistakes as a dean and as a teacher. I know them all and have tried to learn. There are people far more qualified than me and have more knowledge about the data. All I can do is bring to the table what I have experienced and the conversations that I have had with students, parents, and staff. I also do not have all the answers, but I do know what students need. How? I asked them.
My time as an educator will one day come to an end. I will no longer have anything else to offer, maybe I’ll be too old, or maybe I just won’t be able to come back refreshed anymore after the breaks. Perhaps, the burn out will have finally roasted me to the core and I’ll simply tap out and fade away. Like many educators, It will come sooner than later. Until then, I will try to be a mentor to young men. I will attempt to teach them a better way of displaying their emotions and to accept and understand them. And, I will hold them accountable when needed, and when I am doing so I will start with the words, “I care about you.” Even if I can help one boy become a man, my time will be well used.