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The Impact of Toxic Masculinity on Our Classrooms

The Impact of Toxic Masculinity on Our Classrooms

This is a two part series with Maria Delaney from The Social Change Agency. We discuss what toxic masculinity is, and how it can impact our classroom experience. We look at cause and effect of toxic behaviours, and that being masculine is not inherently linked with being ‘toxic’.

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Show Notes

The Social Change Agency is a private consultancy run by Maria and her absolute gold mine of experience.


Emily: Hello, my lovely people. Welcome to staffroom stories, where we take a peek behind the staff room door at what Australian teachers are talking about and what they ought to know. I’m your host. Emily Aslin join me each week often with amazing guests to explore the topics that are coming up in our real life staff rooms and our online teacher communities.


Step into the staff room, my friends. This week, and next week, I’m joined by the incredible Maria Delaney from the Social Change Agency. We are going to dive into the topics of toxic masculinity and respectful relationships. So please be mindful of your own mental health. Parts of these discussions could be uncomfortable for some listeners, as we mentioned, various aspects of toxic and abusive relationships and the mental and emotional impacts that can arise from them. Maria is such a knowledgeable and experienced practitioner in this arena. She began teaching primary school about 40 years ago and moved into providing professional development and support for teachers in schools around how to cultivate inclusion and equity and prevent bullying and violence. She completed Master’s and PhD studies in Leadership for Social Change and has worked with the Queensland Education Department in the Gender Equity Unit. She’s worked on the Bullying, No Way project and with the national organization called Our Watch, which aims to prevent violence against women.

She has also worked with the implementation and evaluation of the Queensland schools, Respectful Relationship Pilot, which informs the current guidance for our schools. Maria is currently working in University research in related areas, and she has her own consultancy called the Social Change Agency, which I will of course link to in the show notes for you to check.

I’m so grateful to be having this conversation. And I’d love to hear your thoughts about it over on Facebook and Instagram at Staffroom Stories. So let’s jump in.

All right. Welcome to the show, Maria. Thank you so much for being here.

Maria Delaney: Hi, Emily, thank you for inviting me! So excited to have the opportunity to, talk to you and you’ve been so interested in all these issues for teachers and this in particular that we’re going to speak about today’s sort of a focus area for me. So thank you.

Emily: Yeah. That’s why I thought you would be the perfect person to come on and give us all a little advice. So here’s the story from the staffroom. I had a colleague who taught a senior fitness class and she is a young, pretty female teacher, and she’s in charge of a fitness class that was at least 90% male students.

And it took her a little while to get them on-side. And the reason for that was that she was constantly having conversations with them about the way that they treated her as a female, and the way that they spoke to her, the way they spoke about other females and the way that they behaved. And this is a story that I’ve heard quite often, and it’s led to many conversations in our real life staffroom and also many conversations in our online communities with other teachers about the behaviors that we see sometimes our male students exhibiting, a lot of these behaviors can be quite troubling. They can be quite misogynistic. Of course they aren’t just aimed at female teachers or female students. A lot of these behaviors are also aimed at other male students. You know, even aimed back at themselves. And the term that has come up quite regularly is toxic masculinity.

So from your own work, in this arena, can you explain a bit to me about what toxic masculinity is and how is it different to other forms of masculinity?

Maria Delaney: Thanks Emily. And that’s such a great summary of you know, what a lot of folk are experiencing in schools. And I’ve heard from folk working in the Queensland Teachers Union, for example, about the investigation they’ve been doing into this kind of experience and the difficulties that schools are having in responding to that.

And the notion of toxic masculinity and the language that we use when we’re talking about masculinity or masculinities, the different kinds of masculinity because the idea of toxic masculinity, isn’t the idea that masculinity in itself is toxic as a whole, or that men are toxic or bad. And this kind of anti-men idea that people sometimes sensitive, reactive way often you know, take up that idea that that’s what we’re saying when we say toxic masculinity, but we know not all boys or men are toxic. Of course. So maybe this word, this idea of toxic masculinity is new to you, or you’ve heard other people talk about it. You might’ve heard some confusion about it or even sense of resentment or anger when people talked about it. It often comes up when I do training with teachers that some men on staff very sensitive when you’re talking about masculinity or masculinities and use words like toxic. So it’s not necessarily very helpful actually. And being mindful of language. Just think about what comes to your mind, perhaps reflect for a minute.

And what comes to your mind when you hear the term toxic masculinity or the idea of unhealthy ways of performing being a boy or a man. What kind of behaviors or kind of beliefs you think are demonstrated. You might think about things such as kind of the teasing and the bullying and harassment that goes on, not just towards teachers, but other students.

Might be things in relation to bodies, body shapes, sexuality, relationships. The way young people communicate online is particularly relevant. There’s been a lot of attention to the, for example, non-consensual sharing of images.

Thinking about language that young people use with each other. The way that, that kind of puts down certain kinds of boys or men, different forms of masculinity, and the way it diminishes women.

Like accusation that you’re throwing like a girl when you playing sport or boys saying don’t be a pussy – sexualized statements that are offensive to female bodies and equate them with sort of weakness and the use of the term gay as a derogatory term that young men often use towards other men.

It reinforces the idea that, you know, heterosexuality is the norm and has the connotation that it’s bad to be gay and should be ashamed, that kind of things. So it’s a lot to do with power and dominance and vulnerability. And it’s a very complex thing too. So, you know, when we start, of course not all boys or men have these toxic behaviors, there are many ways that power works and, and the dynamics and the intersections of race, for example, and the racism, young people experience, class poverty, indigeneity.

So. You know the young men and boys most likely to be bullied be from poor indigenous communities, for example, or ADHD type might be more vulnerable. And particularly kids that have experienced trauma and being witness to family violence themselves, and they’ve grown up in that environment.

So they’ve unconsciously absorbed, all kinds of ideas about behavior and relationships from their environment. They’ve been, might’ve been traumatized themselves. So we need to take a particularly trauma informed approach. So it’s very complex, but we do see that there’s themes there. And when you reflect on behavior and identity and ideas about what it means to be a boy and a man that this theme throughout no matter wha t is quite prevalent. So this is where we’re sort of working towards when we do the kind of work in respectful relationships education, for example, where we as a whole school community look at gender and, and all those other intersecting areas and talk about power dynamics and relationships and the way we think about and look at and relate to each other and and how respectful that is.

So that’s kind of a very broad sweeping description, I suppose, and, and pointing towards this is not just a classroom interpersonal relationship issue, but it’s you know, in communities and organizations and it’s systemic and it affects boys and girls and everybody. So it’s not about targeting particular boys, or boys as a group, or men as a group, and saying that they’re bad and toxic at all. It’s about all of us developing capabilities around self-awareness and, and healthy relationships and working together to be activists, to create, change, being mindful and being careful and compassionate along the way.

But this is very difficult, very personal and very emotional work.

Emily: So what I’m hearing you saying is that toxic masculinity is really about like the harmful aspects of personality traits. So things like dominance and misogyny, but presented in a harmful way.

Maria Delaney: It’s these notions around gender and identity and ideas that males and females are different. And. There are different norms and stereotypes, ascribed to boys and men and girls and women that are narrow and confining and in some ways unhealthy. And we’ve just reflected on the range of those boys. And there are some girls too.

So for example let’s say deaths from injury are three times higher among males and females. Some, you know, about the high risk taking that comes with the idea of being a boy. And that’s often cultivated by our culture and popular media and action heroes and so forth. The kind of sports the boys are encouraged into.

Girls are more likely to experience anxiety disorders and eating disorders because of the way the culture affects their feelings about their bodies and how they should be and how they should behave with their bodies and how focused that is on being desirable for for men.

You know, males are more likely to experience substance abuse disorders because they’re not encouraged to express their feeling so much.

You know, there’s been studies done with babies. Boys have been dressed like girls and the girls being dressed like boys and they brought strangers in to interact with the babies. And it’s showing really clearly that when the assumption is the babies are boys they’re put down on the floor, are encouraged with more active play, given less eye contact, less cuddles, less you know, close communication.

Whereas the girls are cuddled more. They’re spoken to more, they’re interestingly, not expected to do block play and playing with cars, but they’re given dolls of course, to play with. So their play is encouraged from an early age to be more relational and interactive and caring for others and being mindful of others feelings, things like that.

So you know, this, this is where this work starts from very early childhood and us being mindful of the assumptions and expectations we have, you know so there’s some, a lot of research that demonstrates how we cultivate these different assumptions and expectations, and they build into this idea of high risk taking and aggression and violence and dominance, you know, for boys, when you look at all the media and popular culture, it’s quite clear .

Emily: So we’re really sort of inadvertently encouraging this sort of behavior in our own babies. And would imagine for most people it’s quite unconscious, you know, this is the way it’s always been done. Girls play with girls toys and boys play with boys toys. So we’re sort of perpetuating that cycle from a very young age, by the sounds of it.

Maria Delaney: Absolutely. I mean, when you start to think, and it is very unconscious and in fact, it’s very confronting for a lot of people because when you invite them to start to think about that, and I think, oh, well, gee maybe my son might not have wanted to play soccer all these years. Maybe he did really want to do ballet and what have I done, or, you know, it can be really personal and can really be confrontational.

That’s why it’s often it is emotional work people you know, particularly if you invite men to reflect on their ideas of masculinity and their expectations and relationships, and they start to think, oh gee, I have, haven’t done much house work all these years. And you know, what have I demonstrated to my son about equal partnerships and things like that, or I I’ve always asked the boys in the classroom to move the heavy furniture, you know, what if I’d shown the girls that I expected them to be just as capable and active physically and strong. And you know, there’s so many dimensions and teachers will say, yes, you know, once we start talking about and I went out and just had that gender lens on and looked around, I could see it everywhere.

And often they were very shocked and so there are a lot of emotional conversations in PD with staff where women will realize that they’ve been experiencing violence in different forms as well. So it’s a, you know, this is a very big conversation for whole school community needs to be undertaken very carefully.

So, you know as I say, it’s in the classroom it’s to do with how we understand gender and behavior and reflecting on our selves and our understanding, and then translating that with compassion for ourselves and everybody in a very careful collaborative way to, to approach it as a whole school community, not just individuals.

Emily: And I think we maybe need to take a quick second here to say to the people listening that this isn’t meant to be any form of an attack on anybody. This is not any form of blame. You know, you, you being a man is not inherently wrong. Even, you know, like I feel that some of my own personal conversations that I’ve had with people around this lens can get very personal.

It’s like, they feel like you’re having a personal attack on them because you’re describing the way that some other men have behaved. And this conversation that we’re having now is definitely not meant to be viewed in that light at all.

Maria Delaney: Exactly exactly. You know none of the conversations should be about blaming or shaming. We’ve all been impacted by this. You know, we’ve all had toxic or unhealthy or unconsciously misguided, you know, behaviors in relation to expectations of ourselves and other people. Different biases, gender, race, ableism. It’s not about that. It’s about, you know, building awareness and, and when you know, better, you do better and move forward. So.

Emily: But you don’t know until you know.

Maria Delaney: You don’t! And, and Yeah it is uncomfortable and it can be quite painful and difficult to cope with. And, you know, understanding that when you have these conversations as a staff and community, that there will be people that are very uncomfortable and that’s a big issue to kind of prepare for as well, you know, the resistance and the discomfort and managing, that’s probably the foundational work that needs to be done to create are your learning community, where staff and students feel safe to have conversations about sensitive and uncomfortable issues and building those capabilities, the outset, finding where you’re strong there and building on that, and then building these conversations into those contexts that you already have. Where you’re having professional deep professional conversations about important issues.

So it’s definitely not about the shaming or stereotyping or branding anybody. We know all boys and men aren’t toxic. Nobody is. There’s a lot of interacting factors, But gender is certainly a primary one. And that’s something that we need to focus on. That’s why these issues are coming up and it’s something about masculinity or a kind of masculinity.

And, and interestingly, the idea of performing gender, you know, but we know that in different contexts we perform gender differently. So the boy that acts tough with his mates at school will be the darling on his mom’s lap. But in the evening watching telly, in my experience, as you know, so they, know why they’re doing it and what’s appropriate where.

Emily: Sort of contextualized masculinity or contextualized gender norms.

Maria Delaney: That’s right. So, you know, it’s very complex and it’s a huge personal development project more broadly and, and community and cultural change project in schools really to do this work. And so it’s so great so important that, that you brought it up and starting to talk about it more and there’s, there is a beginning, particularly for people here in Queensland, and I know I’ve been down in Victoria working there quite a lot around respectful relationships education, and doing a lot of this work. And, and I do research as well with some universities around programs for young men and talking to facilitators, doing great work. Such interesting, amazing work. For example, in Indigenous communities, you know, and incorporating spirituality and really the focus there is so much on not shaming because there’s been so much shaming,

Emily: Generational shaming in that context too.

Maria Delaney: Oh, and generational trauma. So, you know, this is you know what I say about taking a healing and trauma informed approach and those foundations of being a caring, compassionate, and capable community of holding that space for each other, as we learn, and then be able to do that with young people that we’re working with. Not just jumping in with a list of, oh, this is what I should do tomorrow in the classroom to address toxic masculinity, because it doesn’t work like that.

In fact, you’ll probably stumble and be counterproductive because you’ll get that kind of pushback. You know, you can’t go in and give kids or anyone a sense that you’re saying “you’re bad because you’re boys” and this is, you know, it’s, it’s it’s a tricky one. It, you do need to kind of call it out, but in a way that’s calling them in .

Emily: Yeah. I like that. Call it out by calling them in.

Maria Delaney: Yeah. And, and, and ourselves start with. So get real about yourself and do that work first and that, as a school community spend a year doing that before you even start to think about what you’re going to do with the kids. Basically. Apart from some initial strategies, like this is a long-term project and, coming as a specialist in respectful relationship and the work I’ve done over the years with governments in schools we know that really we should plan for seven year cycle.

For PD, ongoing support, participatory action research, finding out what’s going on in the school first. No one’s coming in to say, this is your problem. You find you find out and talk about it, yourselves, try different things, do some research, get some good PD, have these kinds of conversations and, and think about what you’re already doing well and what else you can do and how you can inject all these new understandings into that.

And it comes up in so many different areas when you look around the kind of policies you have. You know, this whole school approach, it’s about the leadership model and practices. It’s about the curriculum. It’s about the pedagogy. It’s about relating and communicating and including parents and carers in the wider community.

There’s so many different areas to work in. Cause these attitudes and beliefs and behaviors, permeate all of society. And the school as an organization needs to be a healthy model before it can say we’re going to do a good job of helping young people be respectful.

Emily: Yeah. So I think what I’m hearing you saying is really that schools need to do the work on themselves first, before jumping on the bandwagon of like, you know, our government has respectful relationship education is going to be rolled out to all schools from next year. But from what I’m hearing you saying, that’s not necessarily going to be the best approach because a lot of schools might just jump on to sort of tick that box, bring in maybe an external provider to give a couple of little lessons or even one short lesson.

And they’ve ticked that box and move on, but there’s not necessarily real reflective work happening.

Maria Delaney: Yeah, it’s, it’s the concern really. So the work that’s going to be rolled out particularly in Queensland is largely based on the results of a pilot project that I was involved with a few years ago when we worked with 10 schools and did a little respectful relationships research and worked with year one and two, actually.

And the main findings were that there was, at least two days a year PD and ongoing community of practice support by somebody with the expertise in the area. It might be someone in a school or, a critical friend from outside from university, or someone independent, but, otherwise, you know, We can work out who, who the best people are to do that.

And there are a lot of risks because there are a lot of, a lot of people doing work with boys and on anti-bullying and different sorts of gender related programs that coming from positions that are actually not that effective and actually can reinforce gender stereotypes. And that’s a whole other big conversation that yeah, very importantly, that the school understands these issues and can be critical about the kind of support that they get. And the department, yes I think it’s working to provide that kind of support. We know from the experience in Victoria, where I spent a couple of years training people from DV and sexual assaults and women’s health and organizations that dealt with gender violence issues and had a good understanding of those dynamics, trained a lot of those folks to work with schools, to help schools and to do that, do some training with the school staff.

And, guidance from the side view, you know, friend on the side. To help with that. And that was, that’s been really effective down there, but it’s taken huge amount of resources, you know, and, and this is what’s required. It’s, it’s been said, and the, you know, the advice and the guidance has been out there for a long time. And governments have said, yes, we’re going to do it and we’ve done it. And here is the curriculum. I really hope that that will happen. And, uh, I guess, you know, teachers in schools need to be asking what’s going to happen and what kind of PD and who’s going to provide it.

If anyone knows more about that, not intend to, you know, get in touch with the folks from the department as well. Cause I’ve worked with the department of the years and I’m really excited to hear the things that move they’re such important work.

The main thing as you say is a lot of emotion and discomfort that comes up in change work.

And it’s important, you know, don’t rush off and start to research all about this. Just start by thinking and noticing and reflecting in yourself, you know, start slow, start small, this New York Times best selling activists that I just love called Adrian Marie Brown talks about moving at the speed of trust.

And I think this is what we need to do as a community and in relationship with each other.

Emily: I say I liked that little quote.

Maria Delaney: Oh, she’s amazing. So it’s called emergent strategy and it’s all about what we’re doing that, you know, the conversation emerges. Not, not rushing, just start with yourself and becoming more mindful and actually is center of the community practice and the work I do in, schools really centers on mindfulness and that building all of that stuff. How it’s meant be the proper meditation practice in Buddhist terms is for others, not for yourself.

It is a big theme. It’s a finding from my PhD thesis around the capabilities of the awesome activists in the department that I worked with some 30 years ago was about the kind of person they were, their characteristics, their capabilities, and they talk about mostly about things like love and relationships and connection and the, you know, that was what made their work so effective. Cause we’ve, we’re doing this stuff in the gender equity unit in the education department 30 years ago. And it all went away because of the politics of it. And that’s how I sculpt teachers don’t know about this stuff, but everyone was hearing about it in the nineties, in the late eighties and nineties, you know, there’s been such a vacuum created in this, you know, it’s very political in the department.

And I think I told this, my thesis kind of ended up being about the collective trauma or people like me that, and now we’re on the outer we don’t exist and they’re trying to regenerate it. They might online training and stuff, but you still need people that can come in and sit around in a group with half a dozen teachers and have a really deep leadership, activists, brave conversation, you know,

Emily: Yeah. It needs to be a conversation, not just a telling of how to stop being toxic.

Maria Delaney: Exactly. I mean, the main finding of our research around facilitating these change programs is the facilitation capabilities. There’s a core, you know, facilitators need to know their stuff, but they need to be, you know, people like kind of, I know I’ve become because I’ve learned that that’s how you do it is really creating a safe space. Cause what’s most damaging and has caused most damage, and actually probably the failure of the feminist movement is this sort of bull at a gate thing, you know,

Emily: Yup.

Maria Delaney: Which is a shame because the cause is right. The approach is key.

And, people are emotional, you know, for right or for wrong man are going to arc up and say, not all men. You got to be upfront about that and say, resistance is the thing you’re going to encounter, and it’s gonna be in yourself and you got to be mindful and gentle and learn how to be uncomfortable and stay in a conversation and be careful and kind in the conversation and all that stuff.

So anyway, Yeah that sort of pedagogy is something I’d probably talk about, you know, fairly early on once, you know, in the conversation about this work.

Emily: All right, Maria, I’m just a bit mindful of the time here. So we might wrap it up And. We will come back next week to talk about what schools can do, how they can approach this and try and do some of the heavy lifting, the emotional work to try and sort of break this cycle of these toxic gender norms, how does sound?

Maria Delaney: Yeah.

that Thanks Emily. And thank you all for bearing with my monologue. I, I just get so excited talking about this, cause I just know how, how well it works when people get on board and they’ve sort of transformed themselves really, and then the capacity for transforming everyone around them and, you know, get the activist in them going.

It’s a big project and I’m so excited to have a chance to talk about it and to be coming back. Just talk about it some more. Thanks everyone, teachers. You are

Emily: Thank you so much,

Maria Delaney: And yeah, looking forward to talking to you again.

Emily: Awesome. Thank you so much.

I trust you found value in Part One of this incredibly important discussion. I know for myself, I actually left that conversation, reflecting on my own values and beliefs, and that in itself can be incredibly uncomfortable. So be aware of that as you’re reflecting back on this episode, feeling very uncomfortable is very normal because no change worth making happens in complete comfort.

I hope you’ll join Maria and I next week as we continue the conversation in Part Two.

If you’d like to continue the conversation, come and join us over on Facebook in the group called the teacher community by staffroom stories. And you can also find us on Facebook and Instagram at staffroom store. You can also check out the for full podcast, episode transcripts, as well as articles about a whole range of other staffroom topics.

If you liked what you heard today, I’d love for you to tell your friends and colleagues about this podcast. And if you would leave me a review on whatever service you’re listening through, this helps others to find us. Thank you for gifting me some time out of your day. I hope the rest of it treats you well.

Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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