One distinction dear to Saint Thomas Academy is its well-earned reputation for faculty and staff who talk to boys in ways that get through to them. Whether you hope to lay the groundwork for better relationships, improve day-to-day conversation, or resolve conflicts with the boys in your life, some of the Academy’s best and brightest faculty and staff have your back with these bits of advice.
Learn the Lay of the Land
“Boys need very direct communication,” said Middle School Director Jamie Jurkovich. “They don’t do well in subtleties. They need both positive and negative examples. They’re also very keen on fairness. They want to see that someone isn’t getting a better deal than them or a worse deal than them. Sometimes you have to explain how a certain thing is fair.”
Social Studies Teacher Mary Rowe observed, “They feel under heard by adults. They want to be treated the same. Clearly, they can’t be treated the same. But if you give them the same respect that you give to your colleagues or peers, you can get a lot of mileage out of that. When they see that I value their perspectives at age 12, that works well.
“Also, directness is important. Teachers or parents aren’t always honest with them. They grow up in this culture where they’re patted on the back a lot. Sometimes, they need immediate feedback, and I try to do that in a nice way so they own their behavior, and then we move on.”
“Boys require communication skills that vary from girls,” said School Counselor Justin Larson. “The biggest thing is we don’t always have to have an answer for them. If they just want to talk about something, that’s perfectly fine. Let’s hear what they need to say.
“I don’t necessarily need to interject with what I’ve done in the past. Sometimes they don’t want that. They just want to vent. I tell guys that I can just shut up and listen. That helps relax them and let them know that this is a different setting than talking to a teacher or a parent.”
“We need to make sure we’re being our true selves,” Larson said. “If you are trying to play a part or act outside of your normal scope, the boys are going to pick up on that. They don’t want to spend time with fake people or have conversations with people they don’t trust.”
Trust is a Must
When it comes to talking to boys, said Art Teacher Brandon Lutterman, “the two words that come to mind are trust and respect. Once those are fulfilled, that opens up a gamut of abilities to communicate.”
During his first weeks at the Academy, Lutterman’s students challenged him just to see what they could get away with. His ability and willingness to play basketball with the boys helped overcome those challenges. “It was almost instantaneous,” he said. “You give a ball to a bunch of boys, and you’ve got it made. Once you prove that you’re someone who’s admirable, that they can trust you, and you develop respect over a period of time, that’s when the relationships begin to flourish.
“Earning trust and respect comes down to an inherent ability to understand behavior, the basics of primal communication, such as reading people and being aware of the situation they are in. Also, having a personality helps. If you’re stale or boring, nobody’s going to gravitate toward that. If you’re interesting and original, you’re going to have more gravitational pull.”
Lay Down the Law
Recalling early resistance to his intensity upon his arrival at the Academy as a PE and Health Teacher and Swimming Coach John Barnes still insists, “You have to lay down the law at the beginning, so they know what to expect. The boys know what my line is. They know they can go up to the line, and they may look over it, but they know darn well they better not cross it. They love the consistency. They know the message is never going to change.”
Sharing Rules and Guidelines
Barnes’ advice to “lay down the law” may sound like a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude that could drive boys off, but his nuanced approach actually draws them in. As a swimming coach, for example, his only rule is “you can’t drown.” Otherwise, Barnes offers only guidelines.
“When you have rules you have to totally stick to them. When you have guidelines, recommendations, it gives you a little freedom, a coach’s prerogative. If little Joey has a family outing on a Saturday, and he can’t make practice, that’s cool. Family is more important than any sport. My team is based on three principles, family is first, school is second, and the sport is third. If any athlete has tutoring or a family thing, that’s fine. If you’re 10 minutes late to practice because of tutoring, then you’re 10 minutes late to practice. That’s how I meet them.”
Similarly, Rowe takes a firm but gentle approach to getting through to the boys in her classes. “I give out civil discourse points,” she said. “I have a chart on the wall. They tell me how many points they think they earned, including respect for the teacher, respect for peers, and paying attention. Our responses are very in the moment, fun, not judgy.”
Apply Peer Pressure
Rowe said that in case of a classroom disturbance, “Sometimes I’ll just stop talking and then they shush each other. I’m pretty public about my expectations. The classroom is a stage, and based on your behaviors on that stage, I may call you out on that stage. I may say, ‘Thanks for making that mistake, because now we can talk about why that might not be ok in a classroom.’ We eclectically discuss and make those rules as the days go by, and we move on without preaching at them.”
Jurkovich amplified on the topic of public discipline. “If you’re going to call them out in front of others, do it strategically. Sometimes they need to see you holding people accountable. There are times that’s appropriate, but you have to be really thoughtful about that, because typically you’re going to get more out of the student if you pull him aside and say, ‘Listen, I don’t want to embarrass you in front of these guys’ and tell them very directly what you see going on and what you need. Otherwise, they’ll get defensive and you’re not going to make as much headway. Friendships are important to the boys. Sometimes the indirect way to them is to go through friends, who have maybe more influence than I do.”
Of course, peer relationships among boys can be volatile, demanding different forms of communication, Jurkovich said. “We do mediations, if it’s not a bullying situation, for what we call ‘classmate conflict’ or ‘friendship friction.’ We try to let the boys as much as possible develop the skills to work out their problems, but sometimes they need help getting unstuck.”
Mediation entails each boy explaining his version of events, time for each boy to rebut, adult guidance toward a middle ground of objective truth, and each boy’s statement of what he sees as a just resolution. “It’s a concrete process toward moving forward,” Jurkovich said. “They don’t get the subtle; they think it applies to somebody else. During the process, it’s better to listen first. Ask leading questions to understand how the boys are feeling. A lot of times you find out things and realize ‘Oh! That’s why he’s acting out. Sometimes you have to sift through a little b.s. Some of these guys are masters of plausible deniability. And, then, ‘OK I can see why you’re not feeling good about this or that, but is it fair to take it out on Johnny?’”
Every coach or teacher has a take on the volume of voice needed to get through to boys. “I hardly ever yell,” Rowe said. “I just think it’s ineffective for me.”
Meanwhile, Jurkovich said, “Sometimes you need to use the big-boy voice. I’m not afraid to raise my voice if the situation calls for it; it’s a judgment on when to speak in a high, medium, or low voice. Sometimes you get their attention more if you speak super calmly and slowly. It’s more of an art than a science.”
When his students were still testing Lutterman, “they found out that I was really here for them. I never wanted to discipline them. I didn’t want to go to work so that I could yell. That’s not me.”
Points About Parents
They know it’s a partnership,” Barnes said. “They all have my cell phone number.”
Advised Larson, “Use car rides efficiently and effectively. If you can get the boys off the phone or take their headphones out, the car ride is an added bonus. It’s a captive space. A parent driving will have eyes on the road instead of making eye contact. The boys don’t necessarily like eye contact all the time.
“Sometimes I like to have shoulder-to-shoulder conversations with guys, staring off into the distance and still being able to carry on a conversation. It puts some guys at ease to not feel the pressure of maintaining eye contact. It’s beneficial to have that kind of conversation when you’re out on a walk.”
Driven to Distraction
“My office is a little overstimulating for some guys,” Larson said. “I’ve got stuff on the walls, I’ve got games, and I’ve got things for them to fidget with, which almost distracts them into conversation rather than having deep one-on-one intensity. Fidgeting with something relaxes them and helps remove the pressure of the seriousness of the conversation at hand. It’s a way for them to use some pent-up energy.”
The Art of Conversation
“Inspiration is what I always use as Plan A,” Lutterman said. “I want them to see what I’m working on to help spur their creativity. As long as I can try to inspire and influence these guys, they’re going to be more engaged and interested in art. Then, you don’t have to ram it down their throats. You open their minds to where they’ll actually accept it. The best time to get through to them is when they ask questions. Someone who shows up wanting to be educated instead of just getting through the day gets the best out of me.”
Larson expounded on some of his favorite strategies and tactics to stimulate and sustain conversations with boys. “If you have something important to talk about, ease into things and build up to it. Warm up before you start sprinting. It may take a couple times to dip your toe in the water and then pull back out. That’s better than having a guy just completely shut down and not want to broach the topic at all. Don’t badger kids into answers. They’re just going to dig their heels in and clam up and not want to share.
“Acknowledge their feelings. If a boy is upset with a rule, for example, acknowledge that he’s upset or frustrated. Let the boy get his feelings out without arguing about the rules. Even if you still disagree, letting him share his feelings with someone who’s in charge can be beneficial. In our counseling office, we can’t change a teacher’s rule or the way an assignment goes, but we can acknowledge frustration and start to find a way to the other side of that.
“Before offering correction, listen to the full story. Let them be heard. That’s going to make guys more comfortable with having those initial conversations instead of always being in fear that if they talk about something, they’re going to get punished right away.
“Ask open-ended questions. If you ask how they’re doing, the default is, ‘I’m fine.’ That’s the easy way out. As adults, we have to do a little extra work and be more creative and thoughtful in the questions we ask. Have an actual conversation more than an interview or a fact-finding session. The more you do that, the better habits both parties will form. Guys will be more willing and more prepared to have longer conversations.
“Timing is everything. If the time is not right to have a tough conversation, don’t feel like you have to force it right then. If boys know that you’re there and willing and able to talk, they’ll end up coming around. You may have to remind them a few times, but they’ll get to you when they’re ready.”
Some of the nuance and strategies fly out the window in urgent situations, such as a fistfight or other physical danger. “You may need to be very direct and pointed,” Larson said. “More concrete questions in those situations are better. They’re going to have to offer up some information even if there is a period of uncomfortable silence until the boy gets to a point where he’s willing to share.”
Resources and Recommended Reading
Jurkovich attributes his ability to navigate the choppy waters of communicating with boys to “years of experience, working with colleagues, and going to conferences, seminars, and conflict resolution classes.”
His library includes:
A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys into Exceptional Men by Michael Gurian
Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack and Mary Pipher
Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Raising Sons by Michael Thompson and Teresa Barker
Tired of Yelling: Teaching our Children to Resolve Conflict by Lyndon D. Waugh
Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection by Niobe Way
Boys and Girls Learn Differently! A Guide for Teachers and Parents by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher , William L. Ury, et al.
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson
Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen by David Walsh
From Jurkovich, “Their brains are under construction. From a developmental standpoint, there’s a lot going on. They don’t see risk very well. Or consequences. They think they’re immortal.”
From Barnes, “I could say to a group of girls, ‘Be quiet,’ and they’d be quiet. With boys, ‘Be quiet’ doesn’t even go in their brain. It’s, ‘Shut up! Quiet now!’ They don’t want you to sugarcoat things. They want it straightforward.”
From Lutterman, “If we had a major bonfire to burn all the iPhones, we’d probably be doing better.”