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Getting Away With It: Breaking the Rules of School and Narrow Masculine Constructs


Schools are places with rules. Perhaps they are places of rules.


It’s hard for educators to imagine a school environment that is unable to answer questions about such matters as: When’s lunch? How often does class meet and for how long? What happens when a student is out of line or disruptive? What are the protocols? What is the process? Who’s in charge and where is this all written down?

In some ways, we attempt to create micro societies in schools. Some schools try experiments in democratic values as part of their mission. “Hey, if we live in a democracy, shouldn’t students learn how to take some responsibility for the rules of the school?” And many schools are still very much top down structures which view adults as the ultimate decision makers and arbitrators. Students are told to conform. They are told what to do with their bodies and minds for most of the day without much say in the matter.

Schools are places with rules. Perhaps they are places of rules.

In many ways, (and one could argue by design) American schools are more like factories or extremely hierarchical corporate structures where rule following and obedience are highly rewarded. This can also turn student learning into a type of labor, with preordained expectations and outputs for results. This labor can become another means by which we define control and rule following. Inside such schooling systems, the very act of learning becomes part of an endless cycle of reinforcing the notion that rules need to be followed.

Students largely conform from many years of this indoctrination in their schooling. But they also create their own substructures that push back, at least in part, on these dehumanizing super structures.

Already narrow masculinized cultures in schools can create even more trouble for boys as they move through their education. Attempts at rebellion against these school super systems can often mean exhibiting behaviors toward the school, and then themselves, which are unproductive and even harmful. Group generated behaviors are meant to provide some meaning to being in a constant state of subservience to systems they often do not fully understand.

I am not, in any way, saying that the impact of these systems does not also have a negative effect on all students. The effect is just different as we try to understand what school feels like and is experienced depending on reinforced, traditional binary notions of gender which are also baked into the system.

Already narrow masculinized cultures in schools can create even more trouble for boys as they move through their education. Attempts at rebellion against these school super systems can often mean exhibiting behaviors toward the school, and then themselves, which are unproductive and even harmful.

Class disruption is a perfect example. There are a number of ways to describe and understand when students act out, talk back, make noise, crack jokes or disregard the activities which are being presented to them. If we’re honest, when we even read the words and phrases I have just listed, we see a boy. This type of confrontational even macho behavior in class is often characterized in different ways.

  1. Perhaps it's a child who is feeling insecure about learning. Disruption is how they let us know.

  2. They are bored and are therefore acting out.

  3. They just don’t really care about school or are too immature to do so yet.

  4. They have impulse issues. They just can’t control themselves.

  5. They want to be perceived as the rebels, scoring points with their friends.

There are certainly more framings, and the ones listed here are not mutually exclusive.

Our current systems and cultural benchmarks for masculine identity can force boys into lose-lose situations when it comes to school structures and their purposes. If a significant framing for the school experience is conformity and control, boys often receive messages that their rugged individualism is being challenged. They are supposed to stand out as mavericks. They are above the rules and to rebel against them is a sign of their emerging preordained masculine inheritance. Authoritarian school culture and unhealthy, narrow definitions of male identity clash hard but also work, ironically, hand in hand.

If male students create their relationships to learning around peer subcultures defined and reinforced by expressions of rebellion and disruption, this can also bleed into other areas of school life as well. Participation in extracurricular areas and student activities, such as student government, can be seen as validating the greater systems of school. Male students lose again. Activities where they can express themselves, develop relationships, and gain critical skills are devalued and frowned upon if they come into confrontation with rejecting the system as a whole. The cost benefit analysis is often too much to overcome for boys inside of their very tightly knit web of male norms and behaviors.

Authoritarian school culture and unhealthy, narrow definitions of male identity clash hard but also work, ironically, hand in hand.

My argument is that in a weird way, boys are not rebellious enough. They're not really rebelling against what makes them feel devalued and dehumanized in schools. They are, more often than not, howling at the wind and seen as immature disruptors. This form of push back is also a form of don’t ask, don't tell in our schools: We’ll endure the pitched battles of naughty boys if we don’t really need to rethink the way we construct the school experience around rules and obedience. We need to actually help boys develop the language, self awareness, and courage to speak out about the truly legitimate ways that school feels oppressive and meaningless.

The more important step would be to stop making schooling about following rules and make sure that students can connect to the true joy and meaning of learning. This seems to me to be the ultimate work where we can help all students thrive. If school were less about hoop jumping and more about helping students be their best selves, these subcultures would not be necessary in the first place.

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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