A male teacher's perspective on teaching girls at St Margaret's

We recently interviewed one of our male teachers to gain an insight into how teaching girls differs from teaching boys. We also found out all about learning history and economics at St Margaret's...

How long have your taught at St Margaret’s for?

I started working at St Margaret’s in August 2007.

Had you taught in an all-girls school before?

No, so I was unsure of what to expect having taught boys and girls together.

So, how do you find teaching girls different to teaching boys?

I think we have been conditioned to a certain extent by the whole Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus belief that the sexes are inherently different. Anthropologists, psychologists and social commentators can wax lyrical about all that stuff, but for me the differences between boys and girls in a learning environment are very subtle and nuanced. The pupils I teach are in their teenage years and no matter if they are boys or girls, they all look for certain qualities in me as their teacher. They want to feel secure in the knowledge that their teacher knows what they are talking about, so they place a premium on my knowledge of the curriculum and the assessment arrangements pertaining to my subjects. They want a teacher to be consistent in their approach and not prone to favouritism or mood swings (something I experienced as a pupil many years ago!). They want their homework marked and returned promptly with clear instructions on how to improve. And, most importantly, they all positively respond to fairness, kindness and a healthy dose of humour. For all of the above girls and boys are exactly the same.

But I will add that the girls at St Margaret’s are exemplary when it comes to behaviour, politeness, and good manners. I’ve lost count of the number of times a girl has said thank you to me when I hand out materials during lessons. Those little things which could easily go unnoticed under the radar constantly remind me of the positive ethos that can be witnessed throughout the school.

What do you see as the benefits for an all-girls environment?

There is clear statistical evidence that in certain subjects, such as the physical sciences, having girls together clearly raises their overall attainment on average.  I also personally believe that when girls play sport together they greatly benefit, as boys can be dominant and intimidating in a sporting environment. I have no academic evidence to support that view, but it’s just something I believe to be the case based on my observations over the years as a teacher.

I will add a caveat though. Having some male teachers in an all-girls school does them the world of good, as would female teachers working in an all-boys school. I firmly believe that the gender composition of the teaching profession should be more balanced, as at present 92% of primary teachers in Scotland are female with 67% making up the entire profession. How you change that is a very complex problem.

What do you most enjoy about teaching?

I will be a bit self-critical here. I’m probably a person who is better working with youngsters than adults. That’s not to say I can’t work with adults! It’s just that I genuinely get a buzz working with young people who want to learn and laugh at the same time. Having ‘banter’ in a working environment where learning is taking place is part of the magic that makes teaching so worthwhile. It’s an often overused phrase but teaching is a vocation. I find a lot of the discussion that surrounds educational policy quite dull and tedious actually. Politicians never seem to grasp the fact that the constant tinkering with the curriculum and assessment eats away at the goodwill that naturally inhabits the ‘caring professions’. So for me, the classroom is a sort of haven where I get to express my personality and professional competence. That’s where I get my feel good factor, not from reading the latest government directive.  I suspect my view is shared by quite a lot of teachers.

You teach history and economics – how did you end up on this path?

I originally thought I would end up as a PE teacher! That was my initial intention many, many years ago after I left the armed forces. However, I fell in love with history and economics at university and now find myself talking all day about two subjects I care passionately about. St Margaret’s originally only employed me as Head of History but I was asked in 2008 if I would consider teaching economics as well. That was a twist of fate that has worked out well for me.

Can you tell us when girls start learning history and economics and when they make choices about whether to carry the subjects on?

Girls will start learning about history from a very young age in Junior school and will come to Senior school with some idea of what history is. In the first two years of Senior school we then try to deepen that understanding by looking at concepts such as chronology, identity, ideology, and historical change. I’m very keen for history still to be ‘hands-on’ in those two years and not the essay driven subject it can be at a higher level. Girls can then decide after IIS if they wish to continue with the subject at National 5. We are quite fortunate in that there is a strong retention rate and many girls continue with history all the way through to Advanced Higher.

Economics is different in that it’s not offered until V Senior as a Higher. I always admire those girls who chose economics because they are invariably taking a risk. What I mean by that is Highers remain the ‘gold standard’ for university entrance in Scotland and to choose a subject you haven’t studied before as part of a cohort that will determine whether you gain entrance to university shows real courage I think. Like history, girls who take Higher economics have the option to continue with Advanced Higher in VI Senior.

Again, I have to praise the girls at St Margaret’s for the quality of the work they produce in both subjects. Particularly at Higher and Advanced Higher level where I have read work that is truly outstanding and a joy to read.

What topics do the girls cover in economics at Higher and Ad Higher?

Without getting too technical and bogged down in economics jargon, we study microeconomics which is a study of market structures and basic economic theory, macroeconomics which is a study of the UK economy, and international economics which looks at globalisation, multinational companies, international trade, and emerging economies.

Do you have a favourite topic you most enjoy teaching in history and economics?

Not really. I could talk all day about my thoughts on how the subjects should be taught but to deliver clarity I think the question raises an interesting issue. I’m not particularly keen on pupils learning ‘topics’. I much prefer them to ‘think’ about concepts. There is a danger that if we teach by topic pupils simply rote learn and never really develop the ‘higher order’ thinking skills which forms the current zeitgeist. So yes I enjoy teaching concepts such as imperialism, ideology, war, culture, human wants versus needs, technological change, cause and effect, global inequality etc. That involves using a lot of Socratic questioning and that is the kind of teaching I really love!

Why do you think learning history / economics is so important?

Almost every pupil that studies these two subjects has told me by the end of the course that they feel they know so much more about how the world actually works. For history, if you don’t know where you are coming from then how do you know where you are going? And for economics, it teaches us that we can’t have everything in life and in a time where the natural resources of the planet are under threat, I think knowing that and being conscious of that would make the world a happier and safer place. 

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