Recently I received a newsletter from Shirley Boys High School in Christchurch New Zealand and while I normally give such things a cursory glance, one article written by the principal John Laurenson caught my attention. To any parent or guardian of a young man, this is a must read. …
The Shirley Man by John Laurenson.
I believe strongly that the key to the continued development of our school lies in our ability to maintain the development of a positive culture, based firmly upon what we know as The Shirley Man.
The Shirley Man has its roots in The Good Man project, a joint venture by a number of schools, including Shirley Boys High School, which began after 2000 under the leadership of Celia Lashlie.
At the centre of The Good Man project was the conviction that a school which focuses solely on subject curriculum, could not prepare a young man for success in life.
This paper attempts to outline some of the vital aspects of personal development that a young man needs, but will only be delivered if parents and school work together to ensure that it is made available for young men.
The list that follows is not exhaustive, it is not meant to be, but it will outline a good deal of what is important and needed.
So what does a young man need? A serious response to that question might include the following:
- The ability to create good and positive relationships with people from all walks of life and from all ages.
- The ability to absorb and use language that expresses a wide range of emotions and feelings.
- The ability to know where one stands as far as belief and opinion is concerned, and to justify that stance.
- The ability of an individual to control emotion and impulse and to recognise that love, and sex are not necessarily the same thing.
- The ability to be practical which includes everything from the ability to manage finances, through to such as changing a tyre, painting, changing a tap washer and so on.
- The ability to treat others with respect and to be polite at all times.
- The ability to accept responsibility.
- The ability to be resilient and deal with grief and loss.
Let’s look at some of the above in greater detail.
I am now dealing with an increasing number of young men who are caught in the soulless electronic world of Twitter, Bebo, Facebook, SMS and MMS.
Frankly in such a world a young man’s ability to relate to other human beings is compromised. Real people get angry, they laugh and they cry, they eat too much, or too little, they get flatulence and acne and wrinkles, sometimes all at the same time!
In the electronic world, things are far more sanitised, and problems can be resolved by hitting the “delete” button
People need to be taught that in the real world problems occur, they cannot be avoided and they cannot be ignored, they have to be faced.
Boys do not naturally have a lexicon of words that enables them to articulate feeling, verbally or in print; they have to be taught these in an environment where it is acceptable to share thoughts and feelings with others.
Boys also need to deal with unvoiced communication and to read body language and sense mood, to interpret the unspoken feelings of others. These are things that the electronic world cannot deal with at all and so a boy is left with only a monosyllabic grunt or a raised middle finger, as tools able to be used when they try to deal with the outside world.
Students eventually have to take ownership of what they believe in and in the fullness of time they will be required to stand up and be counted for their beliefs.
The worrying thing that I often see is an attitude best summed up by Yeats when he said….
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”
It is passing strange to me that young people are willing to progress through life without a cause, or conviction.
The best environments insist that boys think deeply about their beliefs and then also are able to voice them.
The Western World is so dominated by the need to sell and buy and the media con job that ensures that each happens, that quite simply we do an exceedingly poor job of preparing our young people for real life!
Today we have allowed the situation to develop in which a young person has to navigate a sexual minefield with minimal direction, except that provided by media images of sexualised ideals and questionable morality.
Where decent adult direction falters, peer and media direction prevails.
In schools, we teach the biological basics quite well but a lot more than this is required and not from the withered and tired who have absolutely no connection with young people at the very height of sexual potency.
What is needed is not more titillation, which is dangerously easy to obtain in the world where the internet is only a mouse click away.
What is required from parents and from schools is much more important and rare, specifically decent advice on what it is to be a man or a woman.
Such advice comes first from a mum and dad, but it must be reinforced by the schools as well.
Prisons are full of men who never mastered the ability to control emotions and to think, before they act.
Discipline needs to be taught, it is not something a person is born with, and it means training the mind and body to deny the need for instant gratification, in order to work to achieve more distant but greater and more rewarding goals.
Fight or flight behaviours exhibited by boys would have been useful in the distant past, but the usefulness of this behaviour is diminished today, far more important is the ability to seek acceptance as a mature and measured member of a modern stable forward thinking society.
The list of “must have skills” under this heading is very long, here are only a few.
The level of ignorance over (for example) credit card use is frightening.
There is a singular inability to understand that the artificially generated need to buy things (which are mostly unnecessary) is the underpinning reason for the latest global financial crisis and that this unchecked need will lead inevitably to another crisis and one after that and so on.
The rudiments of saving and the traps to avoid when borrowing or when getting involved in get rich quick schemes need to be shared with all of our students. We could well spend a lot of time on the Micawber (a character from Dickens) principle that clearly states that happiness occurs when one spends less, than one earns.
The best bit of advice comes from a B Grade movie called “Roadhouse”
The central character, a bouncer in a rough pub said to his employees that when dealing with people the core rule was to “Be Nice” and even when dealing with rude people the rule of “Being Nice” still applied.
I don’t advise you to watch the movie, but the advice from it is perfectly reasonable, a “please” and a “thank you” go a long way in making sure a person is successful in the world of work and play, as is the ability to know what formal means and knowing the art of good respectful conversation.
This is one area that Shirley is working actively in as it has begun the process of teaching leadership to all of its students. This skill set involves teaching people to make correct decisions, how to lead and in turn serve others decently and well. It involves teaching people to understand that all decisions have consequences and that the decision maker needs to accept the responsibility for the decision.
Truthfully life is not a veil of tears, but it does have its share of heartache.
A student must be taught to cope, without crumpling, when things go wrong and to get on with life, even if praise is not forthcoming.
While ideally, good performance must be acknowledged, equally poor performance cannot be passed off as worthy either.
Disappointment happens, as does discouragement and thus inner courage is needed. This courage must be taught, by parent and in school.
I reading these notes I am conscious that a lot more could be added to the list, for example I am currently exploring whether morality can be taught. In the dark corners of all institutions, distortions of the truth occur as desire replaces a commitment to do the right thing.
My interest in morality arises from the belief that I have that, we ignore the need “to feed the soul” at our peril.
In our society we tend to the shallow, we lose meaning and we fail to recognise what is truly sacred.
In doing this we produce an environment that is toxic to the soul.
To balance this Shirley aims to provide a constant stream of examples of noble action, moving and aesthetic experiences, love, wisdom and the opportunity to engage in reflection.
In doing this we work to produce The Shirley Man, actively and in conjunction with the parent community.
Are we there yet?
The answer is no, but I sense no lessening of resolve in the school as far as working to achieve this lofty ideal is concerned.