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Disrupting Class: A Working List

Disruption in classrooms has a name and it's not Sarah.

Her hair is something out of an epic Greek myth. Everyday Sarah comes to school and she is a bit in tatters. Before she walks through the door, her shirt is stained, socks do not match, her head is down and she is barrelling past me to get to class because she is late again.

“Hi Sarah,” I say lifting my tone to reach friendly and welcoming. My eyes track her small, wired frame as she ascends the steps into the school. As the principal, I eyeball as many students as possible as they climb into the school building for the day. But, I am particularly attentive of Sarah, wondering if today she will be semi-functional or will she suck the life out of her teachers and the staff with one of her trademark days of misbehavior.

Occasionally, her hair is brushed or even pulled back, allowing everyone to see her face, her expressions, her moods. It also indicates that she has allowed her parents to straighten her out before coming to school. When they are not fighting with each other in the morning, Sarah’s family is completely outgunned by her. She tears up the house from the minute she wakes up in the morning. Her mother tells me that Sarah barely sleeps and by 6am her parents and her two brothers, both older, are terrorized in some corner of their apartment waiting for her to exit the premises so they can have some level of normalcy. Sarah is 7 years old, small in stature for her age and doesn’t weigh more than the dirty shirt she puts on in the morning. But, her presence is felt like an 11 foot giant of 400 pounds.

When her hair makes her look more like Medusa, whirling in the wind, each strand independently whipping in front of her face, I know we are in for it. She is not to be contained. Hearing my greeting on the morning steps, she waves her hand in acknowledgement without raising her head or making eye contact, heading into a day where her lack of impulse control and emotional upset will rule over her and everyone else around her.

So, what’s it like to be in the classroom with Sarah?

She screams out in the middle of classroom discussions.

She pulls on the teachers’ arms when her questions are not immediately answered.

She throws objects across the room.

She interrupts other students when they are asking questions.

She twists other students’ arm skin when they push back on her disruptions.

She leaves the class to go to the bathroom without permission.

Then, she will not return for half an hour. No one knows where she is.

She pushes kids in line for recess and lunch.

She spits. Occasionally on the teacher.

No one knows really what to do with Sarah and much of the school staff believes she is in serious trouble, that if this is how she is currently acting, we need serious intervention. And the reason why we are all so worried and concerned? Because she is not a boy.

Data and research marking teacher interactions with students indicates that boys receive up to 6 times the attention that girls receive. Boys are more assertive when they have questions and need support (a good thing) but much of this extra attention has to do with disruptive behaviors in classrooms and throughout school environments. Teachers spend more than triple the time disciplining boys then they do girls in order to maintain classroom decorum and order. The problem with Sarah is not that she is disruptive, but that we think there is something seriously “wrong” with her while we have completely normalized this behavior with boys. We have built boys’ chaos into the system where it reinforces adverse and destructive social constructions of male identity in schools.

So, why do we do this? Because we believe that:

Boys have permission to be assertive often at the expense of others.

Boys get to assert their independence, even when being disrespectful.

Boys are allowed public personas, even when they trample on others.

Boys are guaranteed more ownership of physical and psychic space.

Boys are perceived to have less control over their bodies (a self fulfilling prophecy)

Boys believe they get to make choices based solely on their own thoughts and desires. (Masculine privilege!)

We have built boys’ chaos into the system where it reinforces adverse and destructive social constructions of male identity in schools.

So what can we do? Given these gender biases and micro-confirmations of masculinity, how can teachers recalibrate their expectations?

1. Do not allow boys to interrupt you or other students. While it can be expedient and less confrontational just to give boys’ attentions a voice, if someone else is talking, someone else is talking. It will hopefully drive better listening on their part as well.

2. Bored is never a reason to disrupt other people’s learning or all the hard work you have put into making your lesson. Have more difficult leveled work available for them if they finish early and demand that they then do it independently. It is also often a good measure of what their “boredom” is really about.

3. Give their need for independence a positive outlet. If they have a way of completing the work or lesson which may look different than what was planned, let them go for it. The learning standard and expectation remain the same.

4. Hands off! I witness young boys tugging on their female and male teachers all the time. Boys need to learn how to engage appropriately and early in a physical manner with anyone. No poking, no prodding, no pulling. Show them how to respectfully tap on a shoulder, say excuse me, and use verbal cues to get attention. No exceptions merely because the class is so busy. If they don’t practice this restraint then giving of your attention under such circumstances turns the inappropriate into the acceptable.

5. And finally, begrudging acceptance or even admiration of their entitled and privileged behaviors is part of an ongoing green light toward developing unhealthy definitions of masculinity.

There are LOTS of things that we can celebrate about our male students. None of these behaviors should be on the list.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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