I have been fortunate to work in boys' schools for two decades now. On any given day, I witness boys jockeying with one another in a classroom and jostling with one another in a play environment; boys telling stories of great triumphs over difficult struggles; boys collaborating, seeking to understand the higher purpose of the work in which they are engaged. My days are filled by boys and their natural spirit of competition, their inclination towards heroic action, and their desire to find significance in the work that they do. What stands out, however, is that for each boy, there is an abiding desire to be known and loved for who he is. Understanding and accepting these traits is critical in helping good boys grow to be great men.
Competition among boys is first displayed in early, unstructured play, but that competition carries with it an element of camaraderie essential to social development. Who hasn't heard boys challenge one another-whether it's a contest of strength and speed, recall of information, or simply who could stare the longest at the other. Recently, a veteran math teacher described how his students consistently ask for his tournament style, problem-solving activity. Students in his class are randomly bracketed into 16 seeds (like that of the NCAA basketball tournament) and face off to solve a problem at the board, all while every other student is solving the same problem at his desk. The boys cheer one another on, and the competition lasts until one student has solved all the problems. The teacher described not only the effectiveness of skill mastery but also how the boys support one another. As much as boys are competitive, they look to heroes as role models for their own noble work.
Often in fantasy play, in creative writing, or in selecting literature, boys are drawn to heroic action-stories that depict one person acting courageously to overcome an adversary that is perceived as evil. While some view this choice negatively because of violence resulting in the demise of the foe, psychologists have commented that the theme of such play is focused not on the violence but instead on right vs. wrong or good vs. evil. At my school, we have seen that introducing literature that has the elements of this classic struggle has, in fact, assisted students in accelerating reading proficiency. In one case, a student entered our school in third grade, reading below grade level. Introducing texts in which the hero overcame the villain opened a world of imagination to this student. After he completed the first year of middle school, standardized testing reflected that he was reading at an astonishing 11th grade level.
As competition and heroism appeal to boys, so, too, does making the connection between work at hand and a tangible outcome. Boys are results oriented, and there must be relevance to their work. In upper school science classes, projects that resonate most profoundly with boys include designing and building catapults, which require groups of boys to work to measure trajectory and distance. These projects provide for hands-on application of knowledge and skill, allow boys to tap into both their creative problem solving, and further enhance the social bonds of peer relationships through teamwork.
In the end, the single greatest trait that we must understand in teaching boys is to accept each as an individual human being, capable and yearning for the intimate bonds of friendship and love. My school has established a robust advisory system and a series of dedicated annual retreats in which each class comes together around developmentally appropriate topics (for instance, overcoming stereotypes). This program culminates in an intensive four-day experience in which each student-in a small group facilitated by a peer and a faculty member-looks critically at himself and his relationships. Over the course of more than ten years now, our students regularly reflect that this experience is the highlight of their school career. They come to understand that in their many diverse experiences, boys find the common bonds of the friendship and the love that compels them to call one another "brother."
The challenge of educating boys has never been more complex, and our schools must create environments that are encouraging and supportive of boys. Schools can foster boys' development by honoring competition as a positive force, encouraging boys' attraction to heroism, and providing opportunities for boys to discover the significance of an endeavor. Most importantly, our schools and communities must work tirelessly to help each boy grow in confidence and with an increasing sense of self-worth. Truly, there is no more important work.
Christopher Post (B.A. Johns Hopkins; M.A. Boston University) is headmaster of The Boy's Latin School of Maryland.