Why are boys doing so badly at schools? And why are girls doing so much better? Some, like Christina Hoff Sommers, believe that what and how teachers teach are tailored to suit female strengths and abilities. She has some good ideas for addressing this imbalance, and for helping boys catch up and compete. Here are three other suggestions from my own painful experience in public schools that I believe would revolutionize schools for many boys.

Male heroes
Teenage boys need men in their lives, and not just any men, but heroic men, men they admire and look up to, men they want to be like. Male teachers have a unique opportunity to be one of these male role models, not least because so many boys don’t have active fathers in their lives.

At least 90% of my school teachers were women. Few if any of them understood teenage boys. Most of them seemed to barely tolerate us and none of them had a clue about how to gain our respect or cooperation.

With one exception, the male teachers I had were very poor specimens of manhood. Some of them were just weird, others had horrific tempers, while others just hated what they were doing and hated most of us as well.

The one exception was my Physical Education teacher, Alec McVake. What a man! What a hero he was to us – and not just on the soccer pitch. Wherever he met us, even outside of school, he was always interested in us, always kind, always an inspiration. He was strict and tough when needed, but the vast majority of his interactions were positive and encouraging. I would do anything for him, and to this day I believe my character and conduct still bears his imprint.

Male encouragement
I touched on this in the last point, but boys love to be praised and encouraged by men. Some male teachers would do better as lawyers and prison guards. Of course we need rules and regulations, and discipline, and demerits, and lines, and detention, and privilege-denial, etc. But if that’s all boys expereince, they just give in and give up. Boys need authority, but they are utterly repulsed or crushed by bullying authoritarianism and constant criticism.

In contrast, they do well when surrounded by a general spirit of cheerful optimism, good humor, and individual encouragement. I can still remember the impact of being praised by Mr McVake for a few things I did on the soccer pitch. That’s 35 years ago and it’s still part of my psyche. It boosted my confidence, made me want to try even harder, and the positive vibes even spilled into other subjects too.

Male activities
Which brings me on to the need for much greater emphasis and respect for  “traditionally” male activities such as woodwork, mechanics, strenuous sports, business skills, etc.

I realize that sounds sexist, and I’m not suggesting girls shouldn’t or don’t do these things. But boys do thrive in these areas in their teenage years. They like making useful things, getting covered in grease, knocking lumps out of one another, and especially making  money. But in many schools there’s no recognition for these talents and skills. Everything is weighted towards the academics and the studious.

I’d love to see school prizes reflect the diversity of interests, talents, and abilities in the genders. Can someone please explain to me why Algebra and Geometry are prized so highly above technical skills, manual gifts, and business acumen?

If boys would get encouragement in areas they excel in, they would be motivated to improve in other areas too. At the moment, unless you can do Algebra or write a novel, you’re a nothing.

Be patient
Boys do develop later than girls, especially in academics. I flunked the most important exams in my High School (partly because I was bored out of my skull, but mainly because I was devising ways of making my first million when my parents thought I was studying). I left school one year early with the boast that I’d never read one book in the whole of my high school education. I went straight to work in a large city insurance company and had no thoughts of ever going to college, never mind eventually teaching in a seminary.

All I’m saying is, be patient with us guys. Some of us are slow starters. Don’t give up on us. In the meantime, let’s get more male heroes into our classrooms, let’s inspire and encourage the guys, and let’s recognize the full range of unique talents and gifts that God has blessed us with.

What do you think would help boys do better at school?

  • Beth Engelsma

    Thanks for your timely, well written article, Dr. Murray! I appreciate your honesty about your own life experience. Do you think mothers also have a profound role in their sons success in life? :-)

    • David Murray

      Thanks Beth. Yes, I believe a godly mother is absolutely foundational to a son’s success. This is especially so in younger years, say up to 12-14 years old. However, I’ve noticed that boys begin pulling away from their mothers for a time in their teenage years, as they seek to establish their independence. Some of this is healthy and normal; some of this can also be sinful and rebellious. However, in these years (say 13+) it’s a time when the father and other male role models can have much greater influence on boys. That can be painful for a mother who has poured her life into her son to feel that he doesn’t need her any more (he does, but he just doesn’t want to admit it!). During these difficult years, I’d encourage mothers to keep lots of positive encouragement and appreciation going for their sons, to maintain communication, to keep loving, and especially to keep praying. But I’d also want to ensure that he has good male role models and influences to direct and correct him. And after these turbulent teen years are over (and often before that), sons do return to their mothers with even greater appreciation and respect. In the meantime, much faith is required!!

      • Nancy

        My husband died when our boys were 11 and 12 1/2. We struggled with this..the principal of their middle school was a gay man. No real role models there. The church was not helpful. For a while men would offer to take my boys to a football game, but they were not interested and had trouble sitting through it. They are “doers” who like to fix and invent things. We got through this, with me doing the best I could to hold their dad up to them as a role model. 15 was the year for our “pull away from mom” for each of them. Now 28 and almost thirty they are doing well. My older son, who can fix practically anything, told me recently, “Mom, I know more ‘man things’ than my friends who still have dads because you helped me learn them.” Boys need to be treated like future MEN, and women need to hold up appropriate men as heroes.

        • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

          Nancy, that’s a beautiful and deeply moving story that’s so full of God’s grace toward you and your boys. So thankful that you have seen our heavenly Father work so powerfully in your boys’ lives.

  • http://writingandliving.net Staci

    A lot of parents worry that letting their kids work a part time job will interfere with their school work, but I’ve been surprised how much satisfaction my son gets from his job. He sees the point of it—he makes pizzas, people eat them, and his boss makes money. That’s not always the case with school. :)

    • David Murray

      Staci, I agree 100% with you. I’ve seen that in my two sons as well. They get huge satisfaction even from menial jobs, and they learn a ton. Does it interfere with school work? No question, at times it does. But to me, it is preparing them for life and usefulness in a way that most schools don’t.

  • Lynda

    “Be Patient” is the most important because, believe it or not, boys are competitive. If they feel they are falling behind the girls they tend to give up on themselves. Great article! My son is doing so much better now that I’ve learned this valuable lesson. He only has to compete with himself and he’s excelling.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Yes, Lynda, I agree entirely. I’ve seen really gifted guys – could fix anything or make anything with their hands – just give up because the teachers only valued the cognitive and theoretical subjects. Their success in other areas was not recognized or demeaned and they just lost enthusiasm for everything else.

  • http://www.homeschoolonthecroft.com/ Homeschool on the Croft

    I think the whole concept of school is weighted so much against the natural psyche of boys, that they are at a disadvantage throughout their school years. For (most) girls, sitting at a desk with a lovely new notebook and coloured pens is a delight. They love to draw patterns and keep things neat. (Most) boys couldn’t care less what the cover of their notebook looks like, and their primary teachers (almost always female) discourage them by constantly telling them they’re untidy, messy and careless just because they don’t keep things like the girls do.
    These discouragements that begin at age 5 have a detrimental effect on boys all the way through school and consequently through their lives in many, many cases.
    But whilst I wouldn’t say the school setting is ideal for boys, I reckon there are ways in which boys could, and should, be catered for in a much greater way … for example, with lots of physical exercise in their early years – short, sharp bursts at academic work interspersed with go-go-go exercise and games. Boys thrive on competition, I think,

    That’s only one suggestion, but my comment is far too long already!

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      You just described by school years perfectly Anne. I love the idea of more physical activity in the school day. I felt like I was imprisoned most of the time.

  • http://Professionalohd.com Joseph Kamps

    Another role I think that a father plays an invaluable part in as the son is leaving childhood and entering the youth years is a protector…”protecting” him from a mother that is used to caring for him as a child and perhaps isn’t conscious of how her treatment could be disrespectful of her son. Treating men with respect is neglected in our day even in the pulpits of good churches in spite of Ephesians 5:33. We would and should be sensitive about treating any young lady in an unloving manner, but sometimes even their own mothers do not think twice about showing disrespect for their sons. This is where the father could really help I think – being an example of how to show respect for their sons.

  • http://triablogue.blogspot.com Patrick Chan

    Thanks for your post!

    I think at another end of the spectrum are those boys who are introverted and geeky, and not as physically gifted. Some of them may suffer from social isolation among their male peers. Perhaps they’re made fun of by jocks. They’re picked last for any sports team. Maybe they’re not as attractive to girls since they’re not considered manly. They may even get made fun of by others. They may find refuge with the math club or academic decathlon or somesuch, but if so this may only add to their already less than masculine image by their male peers.

    However, I think these three ideas could also help them. They’re a possible way to help them out of their shells and help better fit them into a community of regular guys.

    Otherwise, they may end up in Vegas and then maybe prison a la Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions! Just kidding. ;-)

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      That’s a great point Patrick, and I agree, these ideas could help such guys too.

  • Kara

    Loved this article! I think it’s worthwhile to add to the discussion the decline of male teachers in the schools, particularly private schools. Many men are forced (if they cannot find supplemental income to bring in on the side) to either switch vocations or their wives are compelled to return to work to sustain the family. As a result there are less and less male teachers and staff largely consists of non-primary wage earners (usually wives!). Too many great role-models have left private schools out of necessity of providing for their families.

  • Mykel Parle

    hi, im doing a project on what makes a teacher influential, eventhough this is vaguely related to your article, i think you may have some good views on part of my project? do you think male students are more influenced and inspired by male teachers? are female students more influenced by female or male teachers? and who do you think influence a childs values and believes more,k a primary or a secondary school teacher?

    Mykel Parle

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  • John Mowat


    I’ve enjoyed your blog for a long time, and am eventually compelled to write (belatedly) in response to this post.

    I too remember Alec McVake – from watching him play on the wing for Pollok Juniors at Newlandsfield in the early 80s – brightening up dull, Glasgow Saturday afternoons. I’m sure he also supply taught at my school (Shawlands Academy) around that time.

    However, my main reason for writing is to tell you that Mr McVake just retired from my children’s school (Woodfarm High School – your alma mater?) in June this year. His reputation as a popular teacher remained right up to his retirement – even making a positive impression on my (unathletic) daughter!

    Thank you too, as the father of a son, for the encouragement and prompt to patience in the wider point of your post.