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3 New Year's Resolutions to Help Challenge Unhealthy Masculinity in the Classroom

As we usher in a new year, it's an opportune time to reflect on the values we want to uphold and the positive changes we wish to bring into our lives and the lives of those around us. 


One crucial area where change is long overdue is in challenging unhealthy masculinity, especially amongst today's younger generations. The education system plays a pivotal role in shaping young minds, and it's essential that we actively work towards creating an environment that encourages healthy, inclusive, and respectful expressions of masculinity. 


Here are three New Year's resolutions aimed at challenging unhealthy masculinity and fostering a positive educational experience for all students.


Resolution 1: Redefining Strength and Vulnerability


The traditional expectations surrounding masculinity often emphasise qualities such as strength, dominance, and emotional stoicism. However, the first resolution for this new year involves challenging these stereotypes by redefining the concept of strength and embracing vulnerability.


A teacher stood at the front of a classroom wearing a black t-shirt and a white and red cap. They are smiling and talking to a group of students. The students are facing the teacher and the backs of their heads are out of focus.

In the classroom, educators can start by promoting open discussions about emotions and encouraging students to express their feelings without fear of judgement. This can be achieved through activities that allow students to share their experiences, discuss their emotions, and learn from one another. It may take time, as many students might not have felt safe in the past in sharing how they feel and could resort to defensiveness or not engage at all. It's vital that students know that their teachers have patience for them. 


By creating a safe space for vulnerability, educators can break down the walls of toxic masculinity and empower students to be their authentic selves.


Additionally, teachers can introduce literature and media that showcase diverse expressions of masculinity, highlighting characters who exhibit strength through empathy, compassion, and collaboration rather than through aggression. Films and TV shows which come to mind that are great talking points on positive masculinity are Barbie, The Lego Batman Movie, Sex Education, Stranger Things and Ted Lasso.


It might also be useful to assess any texts or films from previous lessons with a new critical eye: "What does a character's choices/ behaviour/ opinions say about masculinity/femininity? Do we agree with that? Why/ Why not?"


Teachers could also highlight some key awareness dates on the classroom calendar which can spark conversations on mental health and seeking help. For example, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place in May, World Mental Health Day is 10th October, and Men's Mental Health Awareness Month takes place in November. 


The more that emotional vulnerability is normalised, the less young people will align it with masculinity and what they think it means to be a man.


By expanding the narrative surrounding masculinity, educators can challenge harmful stereotypes and provide students with a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be strong.


If you missed our panel discussion at the end of last year on schools' role in boys' mental health, you can read key insights from the event in our latest blog post, or watch the full playback on our YouTube channel.



Resolution 2: Review language used in the classroom


In the quest to foster a more inclusive and supportive learning environment in which young people don't feel judged or afraid to express themselves, it's crucial to turn a discerning eye towards the language used in the classroom, both by teachers and by students. The words we choose can shape the atmosphere and influence the way students perceive themselves and others, especially when it comes to the complex issue of masculinity.


The back of a student's head as they watch a teacher lead in a classroom. The student is probably a young teenager, with short brown hair and a dark blue hoodie. Students in front of them can be seen sat at desks and reading.

One phrase that often slips into everyday conversation is "man up." It might seem harmless at first, but a closer look reveals its potentially damaging effects. This seemingly innocuous command implies that there's a singular, narrow way to be a man—one that involves suppressing emotions and ignoring vulnerability. Similarly, other gendered phrases like "Don't be a p*ssy", and "You [X] like a girl" have negative connotations about femininity, aligning it with weakness and incapability. (We delve into these phrases a bit deeper in an earlier blog post).


Calling out these phrases when we hear them in the classroom could be followed by a well intentioned question: "What do you mean by that?" "Why do you think that?" "What makes you think of that in that way?". These questions could be the beginning of a fruitful, real and honest conversation that the student mightn't have felt like they could have before. Often gender stereotypes are just assumptions that we carry, and even just a simple question that delves a little further into something can begin to very effectively challenge assumptions that we won't have interrogated before.


By eradicating such phrases from the classroom lexicon, we open the door to a more expansive and inclusive understanding of what gender is, and how it's not as binary as society likes to make us think.


Let's also address the term "toxic masculinity." While it accurately describes harmful behaviours and attitudes associated with traditional masculinity, it can elicit defensiveness from some students. Shifting the language to "unhealthy masculinity" allows us to discuss the same issues without immediately alienating those who might feel attacked. 


At Voicebox, while we reference the term "toxic masculinity" in our research and on our website, we avoid it completely when engaging with participants. The goal is not to vilify, but rather to initiate a constructive dialogue about healthier alternatives and more positive expressions of masculinity. We explain this in further detail in an earlier blog post on understanding toxic masculinity.


A photo of facilitator Jack leading a workshop with a group of young people. The young people are stood at the back of a rehearsal room in a line, smiling and looking at Jack, who is facing towards the camera, explaining something using his hands.

As educators, we play a pivotal role in shaping the narrative around gender expectations. It's essential to create a space where students feel comfortable expressing themselves authentically, free from the constraints of outdated stereotypes. By scrutinising and modifying our language, we can cultivate a classroom environment that fosters understanding, empathy, and a more expansive definition of what it means to be a man.


In 2024, let's be mindful of the words we choose in the classroom. By eliminating harmful phrases and adopting more inclusive language, we create an environment that empowers all students to be their authentic selves. Challenging unhealthy masculinity starts with a shift in language, paving the way for a more compassionate and understanding educational experience for everybody.


Resolution 3: Promoting Healthy Communication and Conflict Resolution


The third resolution centres on teaching students the importance of healthy communication and conflict resolution, crucial skills that can contribute to dismantling toxic masculinity. Often, societal expectations dictate that men should be assertive and dominant, leading to a reluctance to engage in open dialogue or seek help.


Educators can incorporate lessons and activities that emphasise effective communication, active listening, and empathy. By teaching students how to express themselves respectfully and understand the perspectives of others, educators contribute to the development of young people who can navigate relationships and conflicts with maturity.


Understanding what healthy communication looks like is something we explore in our Healthy Masculinity workshop for KS3, KS4 and KS5, in which we unpack how unhealthy masculinity can relate to communication issues and how to resolve this.


Conclusion


As we head into 2024, it's crucial to recognise the role that education plays in shaping societal norms and values. By actively challenging unhealthy masculinity in the classroom, educators contribute to the creation of a more inclusive and respectful society. The resolutions outlined above—redefining strength and vulnerability, reviewing language, and promoting healthy communication and conflict resolution—serve as actionable steps toward creating a learning environment that empowers all students to embrace their authentic selves. By taking on these resolutions, educators can play a pivotal role in breaking down the barriers of toxic masculinity and nurturing a generation of individuals who contribute positively to a more equitable and compassionate society.



 


If you're interested in booking one of Voicebox's workshops or assemblies, you can fill out a booking form here.


If you have a question or would like to chat through something with one of the team, you can book a free consultation here.

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