News & Insights 30 November 2021

Movember reflections – what can we do for our boys?

Here at Action Tutoring, our central mission is to lay groundwork that can have a positive, long-term impact on the life outcomes of our pupils.

Our volunteers work hard to consolidate their in-class learning and build their confidence in order to improve their attainment when it comes to decisive exams. But children are not just results-producing machines, and academic attainment is not the only important factor at play – mental wellbeing is vital to anyone’s chances at happiness and prosperity in life.

What is Movember?

Every November, the Movember Foundation asks us to consider specifically the challenges faced by men and (crucially for Action Tutoring) boys when it comes to mental health. According to the foundation, one man dies due to suicide every day in the UK, and three in every four UK suicides is male.

Socio-economically speaking, children and adults in the lowest 20% income bracket are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest, and in 2019 more than 4 million working class men suffered symptoms of poor mental health but chose not to seek professional help. Men, especially men of socio-economic disadvantage, are not talking about their mental health. So what can we do for our boys?

This academic year, there are more than 1,900 pupils registered on Action Tutoring programmes who identify as male. It is imperative in reflecting on the numbers above, and the threat they pose to so many young people we work with, that we are mindful of the ways that we can use our tutoring provision to make a positive difference and empower boys and young men to speak out when they are struggling with their mental health.

Why is it important?

Young men grow up in a world that encourages them to present as strong and competitive, and to hide any vulnerability. This pressure, and the internalised impact it can have when a boy feels he is failing to meet this idealised standard, is a double trap – it not only harms young men’s self-esteem but also discourages them from speaking out for fear of seeming weak to their peers.

Our tutors are well-positioned to undo this expectation and help free boys of their internalised, gendered burden by praising vulnerability and encouraging their pupils to embrace mistakes and learn to learn from them rather than hide from them or shy away from challenges to avoid feeling inferior.

movember action tutoring

Positive male role models, whose behaviour challenges masculine norms and demonstrates the positive impact this can have on a person’s life, are commonplace within our tutor pool.

We are proud to work with so many sensitive, empathetic men who serve as shining examples for their pupils (not just boys), and this can be especially impactful for the children we work with whose home situations may leave them without a good model for positive, modern masculinity.

One of the best things we men can do here is model behaviour that will help counteract toxic and negative expectations in young boys, as well as encourage this positive behaviour when we see it in pupils.

One example that springs to mind for me in my work as a Programme Coordinator came this September just gone, when I accidentally gave a Year 5 boy the wrong baseline assessment paper to sit, and didn’t realise until 10 minutes in. When I delivered the bad news to the pupil and explained to him that he would have to start again, he cried. This is a crucial moment, as my response to his reaction could either reinforce or help undo ideas he might carry into manhood. So I admitted that I also felt like crying because I’d made a mistake – but grown-ups get things wrong too, and it’s ok to get upset when things don’t go to plan. By sharing this moment, we were both able to pull ourselves together and my young guy finished his correct paper in good time having taken a run at every single question.

Gendered expectations are ingrained into all of us from an early age, but they can be unlearned – the earlier this happens in a person’s life, the better. Many pupils are already beginning to do this for themselves, as evidenced in the rising numbers of young people identifying outside of the gender binary. But thinking beyond binary gender has advantages even for those of us who still chose to identify by one of the traditional categories.

In this sense, broadening the idea of who can be a role model to who can free all of us from the biases that limit what we can do to encourage openness and sensitivity in young men – many of the most fruitful tutor/pupil matches I have seen are when our female tutors work with young boys. We can also be mindful of the materials we use, making sure that a gender-diverse range of authors are referenced in our English sessions, and that maths-related conversations extend beyond football stats when trying to get bored boys onside.

It is important that we are creative, ambitious and unbiased in how we mix-and-match our pupils with their tutors, as one of the best ways to deconstruct limiting gendered expectations is to erase as many lines that divide us as we can.

We are ambitious for our pupils at Action Tutoring, and this must always extend to their wellbeing as well as their academic success – otherwise our efforts may not have the lifelong impact we strive for.

The holistic benefits of tutoring make our sessions a great space to open up boys to the possibilities that come with talking about their feelings and their struggles. Hopefully, we can help to keep the conversation going for everyone long after our boys become men.

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