Challenging toxic masculinity in schools through deconstructing discourse


Recent allegations of assault between boys at schools in Toronto have been widely covered in the media. You will have read about this recently if you live in Ontario.

I felt the need to speak about these types of incidents between boys, forms of aggression and hazing, not as a means to critique particular schools, but rather, to contribute to an on-going community of inquiry into the culture of toxic masculinity that encircles this incident.

At first, I thought that there was no way I was going to touch this case. But it was this intense emotion directed at this thought that made me realize that I had to; as educators (and parents) we need to be comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations about what can go wrong when discourses surrounding what it means to be a ‘man’ start to fester out of control and culminate in horrific events such as the aforementioned. 

Deconstructing these issues are tedious and must be done oh-so-carefully. For this reason, I choose to explore this concept of toxic (hyper)masculinity through a sociological lens, centered around the concept of discourse and deconstruction as key concepts in moving beyond these cultures of hyper-masculinity in schools. I am not writing this to defend any of the actions that occurred, but I do want to shine a light on how discourse can shape actions over years, break down individuality and contribute to this subsequent herd behaviour.

So, some background and definitions to frame this conversation:

Lau and Balovec (2018) define toxic masculinity as a “set of societal expectations of how a traditional male should act, feel, and behave (OISE, 2018). This can take the form in daily life as aggression, dominance, the suppression of empathy and emotion, and homophobia.

To understand this concept of toxic masculinity on a deeper level, I will draw on the work of Michel Foucault (a super famous and respected sociologist), who shaped the concept of discourse. Discourse is a very powerful concept defined as “ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern” (Weedon, 1987, p. 108). 

What I would like to tease out of this rather complex definition is that discourse is more than ways of thinking and producing meaning; it forms one’s unconscious thoughts, and over time, shapes a culture without the individuals even knowing that it has happened. You can begin to see that the invisible power relations that circulate within a particular society get actualized in a very subtle way; a control and power invisible to the eye, but more powerful than anything we can see. This gets dangerous when the discourses that shape a particular institution are encapsulated within a toxic definition of masculinity.

Discourses and Actionable Moments in Schools 

So, here’s where theory and practice come together. Foucault says that discourse can be deconstructed, and this is precisely what we need to do in schools to diffuse these discourses of toxic masculinity; deconstruct. Put simply, deconstruction means locating the ingrained discourse, teasing it apart and breaking it down and rebuilding it into something different. We must deconstruct the discourses that contribute to toxic masculinity and hate in all of our schools, even if we think it is not an issue in the circles in which we exist. Remember, discourse is a tricky devil and hides where we least expect it. It can (and always does) circulate in such subtle ways that we can’t even feel its work, and sometimes it becomes too late to undo its damage. 

Charles Pascal (2018) urges “that notions of hyper-masculinity have become extremely normalized. We need to create a new normal and redefine what masculinity means.” In other words, we must deconstruct this term, find where it hides, and throw it out on the table for all to see. This is so hard, but I think it starts with small conversations with our students, and we must start these conversations early. It begins with knowing the language, feeling confident and comfortable using it, and coming to terms with the fact that power and discourse circulate around us no matter where we live or work.

Shifting discourse is fickle (it’s so ingrained and imbued in power dynamics that often percolate over decades or even centuries) and it will take the full participation of a community; all must be able and willing to have these conversations with young people and know how to deconstruct the concepts. Gillis (2018) argues that this begins with a community-wide conversation that deconstructs masculinity and builds it back up to be something that is inclusive and forgiving within a community of care; a conversation that stresses dignity and respect; that lets boys be who they are, and not fit within a hyper-masculine mould of what it means to a ‘man.’ Bullying is not to be tolerated and intervention must happen early with reminders of a community of care and what that looks, sounds and feels like. 

These recommendations were adapted from a succinct and impactful article by Lau and Balkovic out of OISE at the University of Toronto. I thank them for opening this dialogue in the academic world surrounding this most recent incident; sadly, one of many I am sure. I found this article tough to write, I found the content hard to think about and the solutions daunting to consider; but it is imperative and the impact on our students and children, life-changing. 

Thanks for reading, 


The Importance of a Cross-Cultural Education

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Hello All,

I hope you have had a fabulous autumn season. Here in Ontario, we have already seen snow and watched the leaves fly! For this post, I want to discuss the importance of cross-cultural educational research, and ultimately, the benefits of cross-cultural perspectives in schools as a way to broaden and engage in deep and important learning about ‘the other’.

A large focus of my graduate work involved comparative research with some phenomenal academics at The Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Under the guidance of Dr. Alex Branco Fraga and his research team, POLIFES, I was able to get a glimpse into the perspectives of students in Porto Alegre and draw comparisons with Toronto youth.

I am forever grateful to my Brazilian counterparts as I was able to do important comparative research surrounding how young people in Canada and Brazil take up and embody their physical education, media and gendered experiences. In this post, I hope to illuminate some of the key findings from this cross-cultural research, and ultimately, strengthen the case for the importance of diversity when attempting to cultivate students who are true ‘global citizens.’

So, here goes. These were several significant cross-cultural findings that emerged through this comparative project. Most importantly for this post, these findings are ones that I may not have discovered about my Canadian participants without the Brailizan voice and vice versa;

  • Young people in Canada and Brazil are not so different when it comes to their internalizations about physical activity, body perception and social media. Across both countries, students reiterate neoliberal understandings of physical activity and how they should closely monitor and regulate their bodies to become good citizens. What this means is that students suggested a moral imperative to maintain a very specific, gendered body. Students often spoke about Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat as places where they learned what that body should look like. This makes sense; we all know the world has become smaller as technology continues to advance.  The students in my study showed us that images and access to a specific, ideal body are uniform across social media, whether it was in Brazil or Canada.


  • Canadian youth took this regulation of the body to a more confined space and they discussed ‘moderation’ as the new way in which to control your body. They communicated that one cannot be too fat or too thin and to be either would represent a major disservice to your health and, ultimately, to your ability to be a good, law-abiding citizen. I argued that this narrowed range of body acceptance was invoking a serious level of anxiety in our Canadian youth; a level of anxiety that I didn’t see with the Brazilian students.


  • One major difference the students illuminated for me, and this is kind of sad, was that Canadian students did not locate pleasure in their movement experiences, or with their bodies in general. For the purpose of this sociological study, pleasure was meant to show that there was an absence of joy when young people (particularly girls) spoke about what they ate, how they moved and what they looked like. Young women in Canada remained fixated on achieving a specific, gendered (and moderate) body, whereas Brazilian youth moved into conversations about embodied pleasures. They spoke about how their bodies moved in space, how good that felt, and how happy they were to have that experience. What a fascinating difference and one that really accentuates how much learning can be done when we think about the same concepts across different cultural lines. There you have it.

Recently, I made a very simple observation that got me thinking about this last point, or about how cultural diversity can create important learning opportunities when many countries exist under one roof (or in one study). It reminded me of the important lessons that I wouldn’t have been able to learn if the young people in Brazil were not part of my study. In fact, the findings of my study would not have been novel at all without their insights!

Back to the event. This experience was at an evening get together at the very culturally-diverse boarding school where I work. As I was leaving this event, I noticed several Brazilian and Mexican students relaxing in some chairs by the front doors enjoying a hot chocolate. It struck me, actually, that these 14-year-olds had the maturity and patience to sit with their friends in conversation and enjoy a hot beverage for that amount of time. To me, this was as an example of the embodied pleasures that the Brazilian students spoke in great length about in my study. These young people were experiencing a simple pleasure that appeared to be inconsequential, but was actually quite powerful, at least in my mind. I told them how cool I thought it was as I was leaving, and they just raised their mugs in a ‘cheers,’ silently. So cool.

As technology continues to refine (and define?) and young people continue to adapt, it is the research and education that joins together several (or many) cultural backgrounds that allows for transformational change that mirrors these global trends. This serves our academy and our young people in countless (tangible and intangible) ways and allows them to explore any concept through a completely different lens other than their own. How important is this for an age group that physiologically and psychologically is said to exist on their own little islands?! This opportunity would not be possible without my friends (or my student’s friends) from other parts of the world.

As I was walking out, I saw some of our day students (Canadians) join their friends for that hot chocolate. The symbolism was powerful …



Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream


Hello Fellow Parents & Educators,

It feels like the month of September just disappears every school year. As an educator (and parent), September is chock full of getting to know students, orientations, the creation of new teaching tools and strategies, and the list goes on. All exciting activities, but these times can be overwhelming not only for teachers but for the most important people; our students (and kids). This is why it is at this time of year that I like to turn to Dr. Patricia Broderick’s Learning to Breathe classroom resource. This mindfulness curriculum, aimed at cultivating emotional regulation, attention, and performance, is an amazing and powerful tool to help students negotiate stress in a more positive and productive way.

Recently, educators and researchers have become concerned about the stress that students feel about trying not to be stressed and the negative implications these thought processes can have on the developing brain. Is there anything more stressful than actively trying not to be stressed? Yeesh, the sentence alone stresses me out! Dr. Lisa Damour recently published an article in The New York Times entitled How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress, the operative word here being ‘embrace.’ Testing limits and navigating outside of one’s comfort zone can feel very uncomfortable for a young person, but this is paramount to growing and learning about oneself; it truly cannot happen any other way.

I often tell my students this, but I like to preface that at Lakefield College School, we give them many opportunities to ‘fail well’ and push outside of their comfort zones in a low-stakes (and fun) environment. In other words, feel this discomfort now and learn how to ‘ride the waves’ so that when you go into the world these feelings (formerly referred to as stress) become known as excitement, joie de vivre, and seizing one’s day. With this perspective, stress is no longer the enemy, but rather, an emotion we are welcome to embrace and cultivate to achieve great things.

I don’t believe we can just tell young people to ‘suck it up’ and learn how to have a positive view of stress all on their own. It requires a shift in thinking and perception that isn’t aligned with current socially ingrained ideas about stress. This requires practice and a refocus of the thought processes of our students (and ourselves). Enter Dr. Broderick’s mindfulness program. This book takes students through the BREATHE program that focuses on body, reflections, emotions, attention, tenderness, and habits. I like to focus on two exercises with my students for this particular purpose, the first being the ‘Great Cover Up.’ This lesson illustrates how people tend to avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings and then asks them to consider behaviors they might use to block out or avoid stress.

I like to follow up with the ‘Surfing the Waves’ lesson that engages students in a mindfulness practice that pushes them into one of these uncomfortable moments (ie. they get bored). They are then asked to pay attention to the feelings that rise and fall, and ultimately guide them to understanding that they can observe the energy of these feelings without acting on them. This is so powerful and it is my hope that they use this practice when the real moments of discomfort arise, say during exam time, a big volleyball game, or a solo performance in front of the school.

This book is easy to use with detailed instructions. Include a mindfulness chime at the beginning and end of activities and you have yourself a class that students will love and appreciate (and the chime makes you look like a real mindfulness guru, even if you’re not that … like me). I divulge this latter point because you do not need to be an expert to deliver mindfulness in your classroom and I truly think it is something that all of our students need to be happy and prosperous during busy (not stressful) times. For me, it is a moment where I can actualize my goal of helping students locate embodied experiences while also disconnecting from technology. I love it.

Dr. Damour reminds us that the human stress response, in and of itself, can actually “put the brain and body in an optimal position to perform” (New York Times, September 2018). We often forget this point and give stress a bad rep for causing lifelong long health problems, when, in fact, the daily stressor of one’s life, if approached properly, can actually help us perform better. I will use my own experience as an example.

I have to admit; after 11 years of teaching at the high school and university level, I STILL get nervous when I teach my classes and give academic talks. Yep, my heart rate increases slightly when I greet my students at the door and I know that they are in my care for the next 75 minutes and that I have the special privilege to teach them something. In the past, this stress has been something I have wanted to change, as the negative societal views on stress would tell me to get it together and relax, for the sake of my health. But, the thing is, this nervousness actually makes me a better educator, and it also tells me that I am doing work that is important to me. I care, and because I care I put myself in situations that make me uncomfortable (ie. teaching new classes, revamping old ones, speaking to other academics) and I am more resilient for it. I want these same experiences for my students. The first step to actualizing this goal is convincing them that they can ride the waves of everyday stress, become resilient and achieve things they never could have imagined.

Thanks for reading and below is the bibliographic information for Learning to Breathe. 

Broderick, P. (2013). Learning to Breathe: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention and Performance. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA.

A Strengths-based Approach to Teaching/Parenting

Back to school time is upon us and that means back to our busy lives, sweater weather (best), fall colours and lots of thinking about the school year ahead and the intentional ways we want to guide our children and students through the next school year.

At Lakefield College School we have adopted a ‘strengths-based approach’ to our work with students. Strengths-based guru, Dr. Lea Waters, visited us last week to workshop with staff and deliver a parenting seminar for our community. What I appreciated most about this day was Dr. Waters translations of theory into practice. She had a lot of great curricular and parenting advice that one could actually use in everyday life. As you might guess, I got inspired by this method and wanted to share some of what I learned from Dr. Waters with you, whether you are a parent or teacher.

What is a ‘strengths-based’ approach? The premise behind the strengths-based approach is that reducing ill-being does not translate to well-being in an individual. Dr. Waters explained that if we were to stop here, we would end up with children in a ‘neutral’ state, where one is not in a negative state of ill-being, but is also not necessarily thriving and happy in their daily lives. Not what we want. We want our kids and students to feel like badass contributors to their communities, because, they are, for all different kinds of reasons. Enter the strengths-based approach.

A strengths-based approach allows us to abandon the socially-ingrained concept that we must focus on our weaknesses to improve as individuals. Dr. Waters explained, we must only focus on our weaknesses if they are inhibiting us from being happy or productive. Otherwise, this approach gives us permission to leave our weaknesses alone as they are never going to become our strengths. With this rationale, we now have more space in our lives to strengthen our positive qualities, as these are the parts of ourselves we can make even better.

So, in practice, we first need to see strengths. You can begin this process by completing a VIA character strength test, perusing the top 5, and reflecting with your students, children, family – a lovely, warm and fuzzy exercise all in itself. Other suggestions include keeping a diary, ‘spotting’ others strengths (in a movie, a favourite actor, etc).

I especially love this idea of ‘spotting,’ and have already put it into practice with my daughter. Yesterday she was pretty upset when she thought her little sister was about to fall down the stairs. Don’t worry, I was there and Nora could see I was there, so the concern was slightly unfounded. Nonetheless, she was yelling at the top of her lungs about it. Instead of asking her to lower her voice inside and leaving it at that, I took the opportunity to spot this display of care (a VIA character strength) and let Nora know she was a really great big sister for worrying about Margot. I plan on doing this ‘spotting’ exercise with my students, not necessarily so they can spot their own strengths (this is a great start in self-reflection on its own), but also so they can locate and verbalize those strengths in the people around them. A beautiful contribution to a community of care.

From here, you would continue to build upon these strengths, leaving a focus on weakness in the rear view. I have to admit, we have fumbled around with this language  when approaching conversations about ‘dialing up’ or ‘dialing down’ a strength. For example, my daugther is, how should I say … full of ‘zest.’ This zest also comes along with persistence. She has an opinion and she will tell you very adamantly if she doesn’t like something. Nora’s ‘zest-y’ persistence is one of the best parts of who she is. She is full of life and fun and people are drawn to her because of this. Her perseverance and persistence will serve her well when she tackles big tasks later in life. I’m proud of this. But sometimes, Nora’s 3 year old self needs to ‘dial down’ her zest and persistence in certain situations, say at circle time or when she doesn’t want to get in the car but we need to go. Turning the conversation from one of discipline to one about learning how to channel this zest can be challenging, especially, when like, we need to go. But, we’re trying, and I am going to try with my students as well.

Let me know if you have any experience with this approach, I would love to hear it!

Happy back to school!





“Healthy Children, above all else…”


Hello All,

I just finished an important educational read entitled, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools (Thanks AMK!). I wanted to use this post to discuss some of the useful suggestions that flow from Dr. Gealson’s years of practice and observation of young people in elite schools and to make one of my own.  Gealson contends that educators (and parents) ought to question and change (like, really change) the high pressure, high stakes school environments that many of our highly anxious, over-programed students find themselves in today. Dr. Gealson is not suggesting that this pressure is the adults fault, but, instead, he suggests that it will take the collective effort of these groups to abandon reactive approaches to student stress and move towards proactive strategies that truly help students to take a step back from it all, and simply, be kids. Oh, but this is really hard, because society demands excellence from students who attend these elite academic institutions, and well-meaning parents and teachers work tirelessly to help them get there, but, at what cost? I think my earlier Blog posts shed a light on some of these costs, so I will leave it at that.

What startled me most about Dr. Gealson’s insights is that many young people no longer even recognize the extremely stressful worlds in which they inhabit; it’s become the norm within a ‘monoculture’ of excellence. Scary stuff that can cause real damage if not addressed; sadly, I’ve witnessed this with some of my own students. There’s some really cool and applicable sociological theories that explain how we can get trapped within these worlds, how it can become the norm, and therefore, how it becomes difficult to make real change.

Pierre Bourdieu theorizes that we all live within ‘social fields.’  He also calls these invisible, but highly ‘sticky’ spaces, ‘fields of struggle.’ These social fields determine our lot in life and its hard to move from one social field into another. For example, if you hail from a working class family, the structures in your life and the fields in which you travel may inhibit you from “jumping” from this field into say, the upper classes. Bourdieu would say this happens because you do not have access to ‘social capital.’ Social capital represents a whole range of social and structural entities, such as education, skills, tastes, mannerisms, credentials, etc. Conversely, it would be difficult to try to exist in a different social field then that in which you were raised, such as in the upper class. One might feel pressure to maintain what one’s parents provided for them. Enter, pressure to perform, from a classic sociological perspective.

This seems a little grim, I know, but, there is also agency. Bourdieu argues that individuals have agency (choice and power) within the structures (schools) that circulate around them. Perhaps this is a useful sociological lens through which to view and extend Dr. Gealson’s work; the social capital that young people pursue in highly competitive schools has morphed into a competitive monoculture that is causing major stress for our young people. Most useful, is when we start to think about the interplay between structure and agency. This is where magic can happen and change can be made. I diverge from Dr. Gealson on this point; yes, structures need to change, but they must change in harmony with student agency, in that school. Without agency, students feel a loss of control; the last thing the developing adolescent mind wants.

So, how do we fix this very enmeshed social dilemma? As we know, Dr. Gealson suggests that it is time to stop telling our student to change, and to start making changes to the structures. He suggests that this will require uncomfortable moments of self-reflection on part of the adults, major scheduling changes in students daily routines (delayed school start times, no Saturday classes in boarding schools), decreases in homework expectations, recognizing and honoring the developmental stage of our students (don’t treat them like adults) and my favourite, a commitment to mindfulness meditation.

These suggestions come with years of experience and would benefit many students lives, no doubt, but my one critique of Dr. Gealson’s work, at least with respect to possible solutions, is this absence of an exploration into the power of student agency to illicit change.

Back to Bourdieu. This book is about changing structures (things that happen in these elite social fields that involve students maintaining social capital in their worlds), but I was craving a discussion of the power that students do have in shaping their own worlds. I want to hear from them; I want them to be part of the solution; I want a study where they tell us how it is and what should be done. Uncomfortable for faculty, yes. Vital for any real change, absolutely.

Thanks for reading!