‘Typical boy’

I’ve neglected my dear blog for too long, perhaps because I keep thinking I need to write something ‘proper’ and feeling the pressure of delivering a meticulous, well-researched and polished piece. So to get over myself and get back into it, I’m jumping back in with a ‘so this happened’. In fact it’s more of a ‘did that just happen?’

Being a teacher and a parent means that every interaction with your child’s teacher is painfully laden with all the ways in which you want to show your respect for what they do, yet check they have the same values as you. You approach any teacher chat with trepidation, bending over backwards not to offend them in any way, while leaning forwards intently to listen for every clue that shows they know what they’re doing. Not wanting to come across as a precious parent, molycoddling mum, helicopter parent or tiger mother, you approach with a supportive smile and open mind.

Still, you want to raise a question about your child’s progress, ask how he is getting on, particularly in Maths. You know, because of the last two years with all the supply teaching, nothing to do with this year… Feeling slightly disloyal, you nevertheless share the secret that perhaps as your son is confident, articulate and adept at looking like he’s doing something productive when he may not be, and because he doesn’t like to lose face by asking for help, he can sometimes avoid work without it being noticed and could be likely to cruise in class and fall behind if this is not picked up on.

And having shared this knowledge about your son to help the teacher pick up on the signs in class, what response do you get?

‘Typical boy.’

My smile freezes on my face. I say nothing. I turn and walk away. Inside bubbles up a mixture of disappointment and slow burning anger. I didn’t expect my boys to be victims of sexism and low expectation: they’re boys, right? Masters of the universe. Everything on a plate for them. It’s the girls who have to put up with sexism and low expectations, isn’t it? That’s what I always thought.

That phrase ‘typical boy’, so small, so throwaway, betrayed so many assumptions and low expectations that hours later I wanted to run back and tell the teacher all the million tiny ways my boy is not typical.

Did you know? He’s thoughtful and sensitive, creative and artistic. He draws amazingly detailed Viking warriors, werewolves and war scenes. He lays the table with little notes saying ‘enjoy your dinner’.  He’s funny and witty, sharp and sarcastic, destroying me with a snappy retort in seconds. He puts flowers in the letterbox to greet me when I get home. He laughs so much sometimes he can’t breathe and then he cries because he can’t breathe and then he laughs again all over again when he can breathe. He’s amazing at Lego and creates things in 3D I couldn’t even imagine. He’s a fanatical goalkeeper. He loves Match of the Day: he loves Strictly Come Dancing. He dances and sings and wrestles and fights and he sometimes he finds fractions hard but he doesn’t want to ask for help because he’s proud.

Of course, I would say all this. I’m his parent and you’re his teacher. You don’t need to know or care about all the personal details which fill my heart with equal measures of joy and frustration daily. You don’t have time to know every member of the class as well as a parent can.

But you should know this: he’s not a ‘typical boy’.

Each child is an individual student, whose mums can give you some useful information and short cuts about how to notice and support them. When this is offered, it should not be brushed off with a sexist generalisation.

It’s so disappointing to hear this from a fellow-teacher; to internalise the weight of the assumptions and low expectations that go with it for my son and all the boys in that class. What is a ‘typical boy’ like? Not expected to sit still, work hard, stop talking, pay attention, ask for help, write rather than talk, concentrate hard, or improve at the subject they struggle with?

So no, he’s not a typical boy.

And nor should any boy – or girl – in any classroom be seen as typical of a gender stereotype. To do so underestimates the individuality and potential of every child. Please don’t do that to your students.