Firstly, although I am big, I'm not tough. I've never been in a fight, and I have a tendency to cry at the slightest mention of a heart string. Nevertheless, I tried to play tough in my first weeks, have tried to play tough at the start of every year since and was still trying to play tough last September. I remember once (and I've only done it once) almost squaring up to a Year 11 boy with whom I was having a difference of opinion over his presence in my room (bizarrely, now I think about it, I wanted him to stay). It's embarrassing to recall, but I thought I had to have physical dominance to earn their respect. There has been quite a lot written recently about this, and, if you haven't already read them, I'd encourage you to check out Mr Pink and Thomas James' blogs on the subject. My view is that, in my case, going for physical dominance is pointless. For a start, it's not genuine, and I suspect that's obvious. Secondly, the pupils know how powerless you are. And thirdly, and sadly, for some children, even if I was genuine, and was able to do something about it, I still wouldn't be the scariest person in their life. The truth is that some of those pupils have more inclination, more ability and more reason to use violence than I ever will. So, I've decided, why bother; it's exhausting and, more importantly, a waste of time (for me, anyway). I've decided that I'm no longer going to care about being physically dominant in the classroom.
Probably more important than this is the fact that I'm increasingly of the opinion that children, and some boys in particular, need to see that male role models come in all different flavours. I tell them that all I want is for them to be themselves, as hard as they can, so I need to model that. So I don't bang desks anymore (still get teased for that), and I try to not raise my voice (I'm trying to get quieter and quieter the more challenging anyone's behaviour becomes). It helps that my school currently only has Years 7 and 8, and that behaviour is generally fabulous anyway, but it seems to work at least as well as the tough guy approach, and is much easier for me. Plus, I think it's probably good for the children to see a big guy who's not tough, and doesn't seem to want to be. In Thomas James' wonderfully honest story, he got his respect partly through his power (although the guy is clearly a deeply committed and passionate teacher which I think is probably more important). I'm trying to get mine through a kind of relentless affability. Just as a very basic example, I now try and sit down if I'm going to tell someone off, rather than purposely tower above them.
It saddens me to feel like I need to make clear that this doesn't mean I've lowered my expectations in terms of behaviour. Perhaps you weren't thinking that, and it says more about what a way I still have to go to prove to myself that I haven't gone soft by being less tough. But I'd be lying if I said that I felt no pressure to be tough. Whether we like it or not, it seems like to me that there is a serious problem with the portrayal of maleness and masculinity in our society. People may point to role models like Obama and ... well, certainly Obama anyway, but, while he may be a fabulous example to us all, the former President may be a little far removed and rarified to be really meaningful for lots of children. All around us "real men" are presented as fighting things, winning things, sacrificing their emotional souls for victory at all costs. I think I'm pretty enlightened, yet I spent most of my pre-teens pretending to be Han Solo, a man with such stunted emotional intelligence that, when the women he loves says she loves him (as he disappears to what they both believe will be his certain death), his reply is, "I know". Part of me still thinks that's cool. What a dick (me I mean; he's a fictional character, after all). Google "boys toys" and Marvel at the array of superhero figures and a jolly multicoloured arsenal that could take out North Korea. I'm sure things are better than they used to be, but boys especially are surrounded by images showing them how they should be, and I'm actively conscious about raising my son to reject it. If there wasn't a problem, then would I take him to the swimming pool with his pink goggles and Barbie mermaid? Or maybe I'm just trying too hard?
In any case, I'm pretty sure that the last thing my pupils need to see is me desperately acting like a tough guy to try and earn their respect. In the end I think the boring truth is that I think all I've discovered is that it's best to just be myself, and, if that means waging war (a good manly metaphor) on stereotypes of what it means to be a man, then so be it. Huey Lewis had it right I think: The Power of Love is a curious thing and, amongst other things, turns a hawk to a little white dove. So that's the power I'm going for now: more dove, less hawk.