Q: I’m a male head of school at a private, all-boys high school in New England. I haven’t been here very long, and this is my first time taking on this role. I’ve always worked at coed schools so I knew I might experience culture shock, but the differences go well beyond what I’d imagined. Parents, teachers and boys all boo the opposing team at sporting events. The lack of sportsmanship is embarrassing. Academics aren’t much better — there’s a fair amount of nasty competitiveness and dishonesty. There’s just a lot of stupid frat-boy behavior, including sneaking alcohol into games. Across the board, there’s a coarse “boys will be boys” culture when talking about girls. I worry my students will leave school with no understanding of how to respect (or even talk to) women, and no sense of humility. How can I move the dial when no one else seems to share my attitude?
A: I bet a few others share your attitude, but you’re clearly working against the tide. You’re going to have to go for progress over perfection because this is an ambitious undertaking. I hope you lead the school long enough to change the culture. You’ll have made a real difference if you prepare those boys to live in the real world.
You’ll feel less overwhelmed if you have an action plan so let’s pick a place to start. There are beliefs, and there are behaviors. Start by tackling behaviors, which are easier to change. You’re dealing with different constituencies — faculty, coaches, parents, and students — so you’ll need a multitiered approach. Fortunately, as the school’s leader, you wield a lot of power and what you say matters, but you do need students and staff on board.
In terms of the “stupid behavior,” are there consequences? Are they enforced? Do you have a student honor code and honor court to address issues such as cheating, hate speech, lying or drinking on campus? If students commit an offense, they could then be brought before their peers, which is a powerful deterrent. Sanctions might be suspension from school or sports, required community service or even expulsion.
Students also can lead in other ways. Before class elections, talk about what your school values. Meet with student leaders, and enlist their help to move the dial. Can you hold assemblies where you bring in speakers who can share cautionary tales (along the lines of the Duke lacrosse scandal or other recent situations at high schools)? Speakers can make it personal, addressing issues such as consent and ways to avoid being falsely accused. Fear can be motivating. Similarly, provide more parent education. Parents may not think it’s a big deal that their boys talk crassly about girls, but they’d be pretty upset if someone accused their child of a crime. Parents also need to understand that their kids will face serious consequences if they’re caught cheating or drinking.
Student athletes can be leaders too. How are team captains chosen? Are they the best players or the people with good character who can bring a team together? Enlist the help of your coaches, who can prioritize the right traits. Coaches also can penalize kids who show poor sportsmanship, having them sit out a game or even kicking them off a team if their behavior is egregious. On the flip side, they can reward kids who show exemplary character. You may need to be firm about your expectations with both coaches and athletes. Sportsmanship has to come from the top.
When it comes to grades, how are they shared? I know one school that publicly posts names and grades on the walls, which breeds competitiveness. If that’s your school’s approach, consider moving to an online portal. Ask teachers to remind everyone that grades are about personal achievement and that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Teachers can monitor the tone in the classroom. They’re leaders and influencers, not their students’ friends. If teachers struggle with that boundary and have inappropriate conversations with kids, provide extra training.
Use your health and wellness curriculum (which you hopefully have) to talk about mutually respectful relationships — whether they’re romantic or platonic. Make it relevant. Use articles, videos, or case studies to provide a common base for discussion, whether you’re addressing ideas about masculinity, sexual harassment, academic stress, or coping with difficult emotions. If possible, break classes into smaller groups. If you have school counselors, use them. Dispatch them to classrooms, or have them run groups. If certain boys are particularly problematic, counselors (and you) can meet with them one-on-one. Remember to use the rest of your curriculum too. For example, what books are students reading in English? Do they reinforce the messages you’re trying to transmit?
Remember your own network. Talk to headmasters at other all-boys schools and seek their advice. What has and hasn’t worked for them? Perhaps they’ve implemented more opportunities for boys to interact naturally with girls from other schools, or have come up with creative ways to foster sportsmanship at games. If nothing else, you’ll feel less alone if you reach out to others in a similar situation.
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