Here’s Why We Can’t Afford to “Let Boys Be Boys” at School

Here’s Why We Can’t Afford to “Let Boys Be Boys” at School

This co-blog, written by Maggie Lee McHugh, WI Middle School Teacher of the Year 2019, and Paige Yang, a student in Dr. McHugh’s classroom from 2016- 2019, tells the story of how the pair explored the critical topic of microaggressions.  



I left high school one day, walking towards the middle school to meet Dr. McHugh. We had plans to work on editing my poetry and to brainstorm ideas for our co-blog. A senior, Trey, started walking in the same direction. I had worked with him a few times and had seen him around at my favorite local music venue, but we never had a full conversation one-on-one. After some small talk about our weekend plans, out of the blue Trey asks me, “Paige, can I tell you something?” 

“Okay, sure,” I said, thinking it couldn’t be too big of a deal. 

“I’ve always thought that you’re pretty hot,” he said as he turned to look at me.

Caught off guard, I mumbled, “Oh ... OK. Thanks.”

“Not in a way that I would want to date you or anything, I have a girlfriend. I just needed to tell you that you are just ... very attractive.” Trey ended the conversation with those words before we split directions. 

The rest of my walk, I thought about how he made me feel so uncomfortable. The words he chose made me feel like there was nothing else he could compliment me on besides how I looked. As if my personality, intelligence and leadership skills didn’t matter. 



Paige had been my student for three years of her middle school career, so I was thrilled to see her after her first two weeks of high school. When she walked into my office and shared her interaction with Trey, I immediately felt a pang of sadness in my heart. This vivacious freshman was already experiencing the world of high school boys—the good and the bad. I listened as Paige processed this experience. She reflected so maturely, recognizing that the interaction could have been so different had Trey complimented her on something other than her physical appearance.  

Knowing we only had a short amount of time together, Paige and I started brainstorming ideas for a blog topic. Based on her story, I thought about the issue of microaggressions, specifically how microaggressions differ from the often talked about middle school topic of bullying.  



When Dr. McHugh brought up microaggressions, I had never heard of the term. We looked up the definition on my computer and discussed how microaggressions could be intentional or unintentional, yet lead to emotional harm. This is when I realized that I have received many microaggressive comments as I am Hmong, female, shorter than my classmates and have indigo streaks in my hair. In my first two weeks of high school, a classmate called me a cat-eater because I am Hmong. The classmate passed the comment off as acceptable because he is also Asian. That didn’t matter to me. What he said was racist, even though he didn’t intend to be offensive.

I realized that when Trey called me “hot,” I felt the same way. Although Trey meant for it to be a compliment, I was unsettled as a young female. In the past, adults have told me that "boys will be boys." Being in a close circle of friends made up of all male classmates, I have heard that phrase before. There are times when the phrase fits the situation, like when my middle school guy friends would jump on each other's backs, hide each other’s things or roll around in the grass. However, "boys will be boys" is not an excuse that can be made for a boy who is being disrespectful. In fact, no one should be excused for being disrespectful. If girls said these types of things, would we get away with it? 



As Paige continued to reflect upon her recent experience, I realized that, as an educator, I need to do more to foster discussions about the subtle, yet powerful differences between bullying, microaggressions, teasing and adolescent development. When she mentioned the excuse of "boys will be boys," images of my middle school boys wrestling on the ground came to mind. Do I allow boys to be boys? At what point do I intervene when that phrase is used as an excuse in a harmful situation? As a female teacher, how do I help my students learn how to positively interact with each other, especially with someone for whom they develop feelings?


We strongly believe that any sexist, racist or homophobic comment should not and cannot be excused. As a student, Paige has come to realize that her voice is powerful. She needs to be confident in speaking her mind, especially when she has that feeling, that sixth sense that something isn't right. As an educator, Maggie has recognized the need to conduct more poignant discussions with students about the various ways people can intentionally and unintentionally hurt another person or group of people. Together, we plan to use our voices, both written and oral, to explore microaggressions as they occur and to help all educators and students have productive conversations that lead to lasting change.  



Maggie McHugh believes all students can not only learn, but also excel. In her classroom, students become designers, creators, philosophers, tinkerers, engineers, researchers, journalists and explorers. As a teacher at a project-based charter middle school, La Crosse Design Institute in La Crosse, WI, Maggie regularly incorporates a mix of hands-on and technology-driven projects with her students. She strives to create a personalized environment where students and teachers are pushed from their comfort zone into their learning edge. Maggie firmly believes that students must become agents of change to tackle the social justice issues our society faces not only in the future, but also today. Follow her on Twitter @maggieleemchugh to continue the dialogue. 

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