The teachers at Cherrybrook Technology High School were witnessing first-hand how difficult it was for some young boys to navigate the journey to manhood during their school years; and had seen too many fall through the cracks.
Without clear guidance, many boys end up pursuing their own ideas of what it is to be a man, “driving too fast, drinking too much” engaging in risky sexual behaviour, and quickly beating a path towards the “hospital, prison or the morgue,” Pedley-Smith says.
The teachers realised something needed to be done to help more boys reach their “full potential - academically, socially and emotionally”.
The result was Rite of Passage, a year-long program for selected Year 9 and 10 students, designed to teach them how to manage risk and decision-making on the path to becoming good men.
As the name suggests, the program is a nod to the process that boys have gone through over centuries, namely the “[the] traditional initiations in cultures delineating exactly when a boy transitions into manhood and what they have to do to get there”.
By all accounts the program is making a world of difference for the students at Cherrybrook.
Rite of Passage student Josh Muller says the program has given him the support to start making gains in both his education as well as his personal relationships.
“I see it as a brotherhood,” he says.
“I’ve got everyone here to help me and I’ve really started improving. It’s really changed my behaviour and ... it’s really changed my perspective on basically everything – how to be a better man, how to be a better brother, how to be a better friend and how to be a better person.”
At the heart of the Rite of Passage program is a focus on kinaesthetic learning and physical challenges.
“All research points to a very simple fact, boys are physical creatures who learn by running, playing and doing ... it often feels fundamentally wrong for them to sit still and listen,” says Pedley-Smith.
“And, for these boys, it’s key ... They’re really active and they look at sport or physical activity as some kind of release.”
The program uses daily physical activity as safe way to explore ideas of failure and success and decision-making.
Student Riko Schultz says the boys are encouraged to bring out the best in each other, be it on the football field or in the classroom.
“...you have everyone else behind you, all of your brothers ... and we know the people around us are all going to be with us to help us with that physical part. But say you’re in class with a mate and you’re the one mucking around, your brother can also tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘mate, come on – what are you doing? Think before you act - and focus.’”
As the teachers have discovered, many of the characteristics the students display in the physical arena, such as courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice, are traits they can translate into their daily lives and their interactions with others.
“They’d easily take the fall for their mates if they got sent down to the principal’s office and get suspended ... they do have good qualities within them, it’s just learning to focus them,” Fairclough says.
After a rigorous work out with Zero79, a group of ex-Special Forces operatives, or martial arts session in the company of their peers the students are ready to learn, the teachers say, as well as open up.
The opportunities for regular self-reflection have proven critical to re-engaging students.
“One of the questions we asked the boys at the beginning was, ‘Why do you behave the way you do?’” Fairclough says.
“And one of the boys answered, ‘because I don’t want people to know that I’m not very smart’; the minute he was under the spotlight this student kicked off, caused an issue and got sent out. But this year, he’s switched on, and he’s participating to the absolute limit of his ability."
Pedley-Smith and Fairclough say the changes in the boys have been marked, but the program’s success owes a lot to the willingness of staff at Cherrybrook to get on board, and in many instances give the boys a second chance.
“We’re just so well-supported here at the school; the principal, the deputies and all the teachers are on side. And they’re doing a huge job to step back and say, ‘alright, let’s reset, let’s step back and start again and we’ll go from there’.”