All boys, all the time



By Emelia Otte

On a Monday morning in mid-November, Kate Thorburn takes her usual place in front of the class.

Her eyes scan the room, making sure everyone is on task. She raises an eyebrow at the students with their heads on their desks, and they snap to attention. She nods at the children bent over their math work. With a wave of her hand, she stops two whispering voices in mid-sentence.

After 19 years, Thorburn has perfected the art of managing a classroom without having to say a single word. Her gaze travels through the class like the chicken pox, and soon everyone is sitting up straight, silently attending to their morning exercises. It is 8:30 a.m. in a classroom just like thousands of others across America. With one exception:

Kate Thorburn is the only female in the room.

Thorburn teaches at The Haverford School, a private all-boys school in Haverford, Pa. She has never taught anywhere else. After moving from California to Pennsylvania, both she and her husband Mark began working at the school, he as a math teacher and she as an assistant in the kindergarten room. They have been there nearly 20 years. Her husband is now the Assistant Head of School, and Kate Thorburn teaches third grade.

Thorburn loves teaching in an all-boys school. “Boys…are very unique.” She says, “They have so much to say, they have so many feelings and emotions that, if given the opportunity, they shine. I’ve had boys laugh, cry, all emotions, and I think if they were in a classroom with girls, we wouldn’t see those deep emotions.”

Third grade, as Thorburn puts it, is “An awesome grade.” It is not just about learning times tables and cursive writing, but also “a huge year for growth as far as independence.” She says the best part about working with boys is watching that development from September to June.Haverford School 1

The only difficult part is saying good-bye at the end of the year. “It’s hard to see them go, but it’s the best thing.” Says Thorburn. “I always tell them, ‘Once you’re my boy, you’re always my boy.’”


Thorburn’s day begins with a brisk walk from her house to the school. On this particular Monday morning in November, the heavy rain and wind swept her inside the school building. She walked into a large, square room full of murals, where first through fifth grades start the day before heading to their classrooms.

It was 7:30 a.m., and the boys were beginning to trickle in and settle in clumps according to grade level. On the walls behind them were dinosaurs, astronauts, oceans, and paintings in the style of Picasso. The boys had painted the walls themselves, with the help of their artistic headmaster.

Shivering, Thorburn folded her umbrella and pulled up a chair alongside two other lower-school teachers. She took a deep breath and smiled. “Tomorrow,” She announced, “is a week from Thanksgiving.” The three women launched into a discussion of holiday plans.

Suddenly, one of the teachers called into the air, “You can come out now. Behave.” A small boy shot out from underneath her chair and crawled through her legs back to his classmates. “I forgot he was under there!” She laughed, and the discussion continued.

Around 8 a.m., the low background hum of voices grew to a dull roar, and Thorburn signaled to her third graders to head upstairs to the classroom.


Students at The Haverford School study in an elite environment. Classes are small- Mrs. Thorburn’s class has only 19 students. The school houses state-of-the-art science labs, computer labs, multiple athletic fields, music studios, even a swimming pool. Tuition for a third grader is nearly $30,000. The campus is a maze of modern brick buildings. Maroon and gold, the school colors, catch the eye of everyone who sets foot on campus, particularly against the backdrop of a grey, rainy day.

The Haverford School starts in pre-school and goes through 12th grade. Many of its graduates go on to some of the best colleges in the country. However, the true pride of the school lies in instilling lifelong values in its boys- virtues like honesty, justice, loyalty and honor. The all-male environment, the teachers feel, is a key contributor to both the boys’ academic growth and their all-around well-being.

“I think we really know how to teach the boys. I think we understand them.” Thorburn says of The Haverford School. “I think it’s a really strong brotherhood and I think that’s important for boys. Girls seem to have a vast array of friends; boys kind of go with a few, but those few are really important in their life.”


Marie Sweeney, a second grade teacher who previously taught in a co-ed school, says the difference in an all-boys setting is striking.

“Everything’s different.” Says Sweeney, who has been teaching at The Haverford School for three years. “Girls tend to encourage boys to do what they are supposed to do. Without the girls, the boys need personal motivation.”

The biggest shock for her, though, was witnessing an all-boys recess for the first time. “I wondered how any of them were going to come out of it alive!” She laughed.

Thorburn agrees that the dynamic is very different. “When it’s all guys, or all-girls, they’re focused on learning.” The difference lies in being able to shape that learning into a boy-friendly model.


Thorburn stands in front of the class.

“What is the day today, gentlemen?”

“Eleven! Seventeen! Fourteen!” The boys chorus feebly.

“Daily edit complete?”


“Math box?”


Thorburn frowns. “It’s Monday. It’s raining. I don’t care. I should hear how many voices?”

“Nineteen!” they yell.


Thorburn’s classroom is, in many ways, typical. Math and language arts materials sit in separate cabinets. Colorful educational posters hang everywhere, and desks are arranged in groups in front of the Smart Board.

However, a few things betray the lack of femininity in the room, most notably, the far left wall of newspaper clippings featuring the Boston Red Sox, the Celtics, and the Bruins, complete with one child’s portrait of Tom Brady throwing a pass. The background on the Smart Board is the Boston Red Sox logo.

Thorburn is a slight but commanding figure. She is constantly engaged, walking around the classroom, answering questions and reminding the boys to check over their work. “Chitchat” is silenced immediately. Boys who use the word “yeah” or have untucked shirts must put a penny in the penny jar.

“A lot of them owe me.” She smiles, and they giggle. Although Thorburn is strict, there is no doubt that she adores the boys. She works them hard, but knows how to play to their strengths.


What exactly does it mean, to teach to the strength of boys? Studies show that the traditional classroom is heavily biased in favor of the quiet, verbal, multi-tasking girl. Boys are naturally visual learners. They tend to grasp math well, but reading and writing poses a challenge. Ron Duska, Head of the Lower School, says that, in elementary school, boys tend to be a year behind girls in reading and writing.

“What I find with boys is that they’re simple.” Says Duska. “Certain techniques tend to work. You can be highly effective with approaches that are sometimes difficult in a co-ed setting.”

According to Duska, though, the most important factor in a boy’s education is not the mode of instruction, but the teacher using it.

“Boys typically need teachers to get through their challenges. They need extrinsic motivation.” For elementary school boys, connection with their teacher is critical to their overall success.


At 9 a.m., it is time for language arts, and Thorburn has a few techniques of her own.

First, the boys work with suffixes. Rather than having the boys raise their hands quietly, Thorburn has them chant the sounds in unison. They also use hand gestures that match the sounds: for “Ohh”, they make a circle with their pointer fingers; at “per” they make cat’s claws, for “oar”, they row an imaginary boat.

The boys are then broken up into small groups for guided reading, and are each given a single task to complete. Thorburn works with each group one-on-one in what becomes a loud and lively discussion. One group examines the plot of a mystery. Another analyzes character motivation. They often end by drawing pictures to help visualize what they have read.

The group names: The Celtics, The Bruins, The Red Sox, and the Patriots.


An hour later, books go away. Thorburn plays a rapid-fire game of Simon Says with the boys, calling the commands the way an auctioneer sells a piece of furniture. All the boys are out of the game very quickly, and they line up for P.E., chattering wildly, complementing one another on their haircuts and comparing weekend plans.

Thorburn holds up two fingers, and a hush falls over the room. Her eyes scan the room, making sure everyone is ready. She opens the door, and nineteen third graders, like ducklings, follow her down to the gym.