Rethinking How Boys Learn

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Troy Kemp, Executive Director of the NCDB

Troy Kemp is the executive director of the National Center for the Development of Boys (NCDB), a lacrosse coach, the former associate headmaster at ℹ️ The McCallie School, an all boys day and boarding school in Chattanooga founded in 1905, and a teacher for 26 years. NCDB is a nonprofit affiliated with McCallie that connects educators, parents, community members and policy makers across the country with research and insight on how boys learn to help them thrive in life and in school. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MHM: Where are you from?
TK: I grew up in New York. I might have lived in South Hampton technically, but not in the Hamptons. My family, we were migrant workers. I remember sitting in a row of tomatoes picking them when I was eight. Believe it or not, New York had white potatoes. That’s why we were there.

MHM: How did that impact you?
TK: It’s a humbling thing. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world because it gave me fire. My relatives were all about making it happen. My grandfather—who was from Cuba—was a jack-of-all-trades and spoke six languages. He put people to work. My uncle was a lot like him. When they were out in the field they’d always say, “Don’t lighten up, tighten up.” Whatever it was to get you going. That’s why I have a cadence to my language, why I’m motivational.

It was painful, too. I ain’t saying I never ate government cheese. Or that I was never hungry. Or that I never got kicked out of the house. But what I had was that I was an A student. I was always an A student. I wanted to keep that streak alive. And I was an artist and sang.

MHM: How did you end up going to college?
TK: I had a Messiah complex. My sister dropped out of school. My older brother went to jail at 18. (Note: Troy refers to his cousins as “brother” and “sister” as he grew up in the same household headed by his aunt, Yvonne Kemp—his “mom.”) He started rapping in sixth grade and started drinking a little bit and going to parties. I never did that. I didn’t want to let my mom down.

What happened is that there was a big kid on our team that all the scouts came to see. And then they saw me. And they said this kid is from the ashes, and he can play, and has the grades. Every college I applied to I got into. I played football for Colgate.

MHM: What about your biological mom and dad?
TK: My mom (Carolyn Kemp Anderson) was 19 when I was born. She was a college student. I was raised by my aunt because my mom had to finish college. She later came to claim me, but there was a big argument and my grandmother sided with my aunt—who was raising four boys and a girl. My mom supported and loved me from afar, and I spent time with her in the summer.

She told me who my dad was when I was 10. I met him around then, and when I was around 16 I spent some time getting to know him. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t look anything like you.’ He has like 15 or 20 kids or something crazy. He was a military guy back in the day and managed a chicken plant on the eastern shore of Virginia. My mom was always traveling and sent money when she could. I tried to move back with her in sixth grade, but it didn’t work. I was an accident in somebody’s world, but not so much in the real world.

MHM: How did you get into teaching?
TK: Some guy talked me into visiting the Wilmington Friends School. He told me that I didn’t need to be certified to teach in a private school. And I said, ‘Ok, I’ll go.’ I just wanted to do some good work, and I was still in football mode and athletic mode. And it turned out that the interview was more fun than any other job interview. I went down there for pennies, but it just felt right. I told myself I could get those other jobs again if I wanted to.

MHM: Why did you leave McCallie?
TK: Some people thought I was crazy. They said you could lead the school. Why would you do that? In my mind, this is so much bigger. This is the greatest time of my life. This is the most purposeful, meaningful thing. I was born to do this, I just didn’t know it.

And I’m a Christian. All the things in my life, they happened for a reason—the failures and the successes. God put me in a position to be David—the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel in the Bible—all my life. I believe that if you are at the top, you need to find another hill—find a way to be like David.

MHM: What’s gone wrong with boys? Studies show boys across the income spectrum falling behind girls on almost every academic measurement and graduating from high school and college at significantly lower rates.
TK: The media has amplified everything, so anything that goes wrong, more people know about it. A kid gets suspended for taking a photo of rusty water coming out of a school bathroom because he wasn’t supposed to have a cell phone in the bathroom and all of a sudden it’s viral.

Second, our society is a lot more litigious—so bumping into someone is hazing, which means boys have to sit still more. All this is happening at a time when schools are cutting recess and cutting art and music to prepare for tests because the funding follows the tests. The establishment thinks that if we spend more time studying for the tests we’re going to get better results versus the fact that they need to move. I tell people that if you found a random picture of me at age five I’d probably be in a hat and boots with two cap guns, loaded. I didn’t want the guns if they didn’t go ‘pow!’ I don’t even own a gun now. I had swords, sticks. We even had rock fights when we were kids. I’m not violent. It helped me figure out, when I did something wrong, that it didn’t work out for me so well.

Boys are impulsive by nature and if you get that impulsivity you’ll get what’s smoke and what’s fire. People think everything is fire right now.

Also, boys don’t feel like they have a role in the classroom. There a lot of them walking around who feel like they have no value and no role in society. It’s not any woman’s fault. It used to be you had a lot of men in charge who didn’t deserve it and now they have to earn it. Some of them don’t know how to do it.

MHM: Locally, do you think that these changes have led to more boys joining gangs?
TK: I went to the barber shops and talked to people about what was going on. They said there are no youth sports in middle school and that there are no J.V. teams in high school because there are not enough coaches. What do you think the boys are going to do at 2 p.m.?

We talk about gang violence, but there are no youth sports. We cut those things out because of the dollars, but what are boys supposed to do? The politicians can talk about gang reduction and all of that, but for boys sports have a purpose. I’m not saying you have to play sports, but there’s a large group of inner city kids who feel empowered by sports, but they are not there. It’s like the right hand and the left hand aren’t talking.

MHM: That’s where the Center comes in, right?
TK: We need to flip the script on things you see as disadvantages of boys and show how to turn them into advantages. And we need to do it fast. Three years for someone living in the projects is a lifetime.

My whole goal is to give a better scouting report on boys, so that they have a better game plan at home and a better game plan in the classroom. There is not a coach in the world that doesn’t get a scouting report on their opponent but we teach without a scouting report.

With the Center, we want to be that scouting report for teachers and train them to use a gender lens to better understand their students. We’re planning to launch pilot programs in the lowest performing schools in Chattanooga and find out what works and take it to cities around the country.

A second strategy is to work with the greatest influencers in our community. We’re going to work with youth sports organizations because parents show up at youth sports events even if they don’t show up at P.T.A. meetings. Even the dads, they may not be with mama, but they’ll be on the sidelines. And coaches have a lot of power. Churches do, too, in Chattanooga. They have the dollars and the volunteers, the mission and the mentor programs. The ingredients are all there but they might not be mixed the right way. We want to bring all these people together to get boys back on track.

What I love about the Center is that we’re not recreating the wheel. Our job is to be the messenger—the Paul Revere, the catalyst. A generation from now what we won’t say is that we lost our men.

MHM: Why are there so few male teachers? Would it help boys to have more?
TK: The main issue is income. My mom didn’t want me to teach because my other job offers started out at $10,000 more in the 1990s. As a male the image of being a teacher is something you have to deal with, too. And then there is the issue that if you are a male teacher and the whole school is a female culture, then you feel like an outlier. I can imagine a female teacher at McCallie thinking there are not enough women’s bathrooms.

A teacher asked me once if kids behaved better if a man walked into the classroom. The truth is, if the wrong one does, absolutely not. There is something, however, about the expectation that boys start to have as soon as a man walks in there. It’s a connection, an identity. I always try to look the part and be the part. I want kids to know as soon as they meet me that I’m for a real—that I expect them to be great right away. It’s amazing how kids respond to that.

MHM: How do you get more men interested in teaching?
TK: What if you took the Tomorrow building (818 Georgia Ave.) and made it for teachers? Made it affordable for them? I know what they are charging. Why not cut it, subsidize it? Teachers would have to meet certain criteria, commit to three years and be assigned to a school. Now we’re talking. Things change tomorrow. Do what works. Just because McCallie is an independent school doesn’t mean its ideas can’t work someplace else. Let’s provide an opportunity for all the folks at school X,Y and Z in Hamilton County, and lets scale it up. It’s already worked outside Chattanooga. My wife and I came here because we had housing at McCallie. We couldn’t have made it work otherwise.

MHM: How does your background influence your new role?
TK: With me, I have always listened because I’ve always been the minority in the room. When you grow up a certain way you listen before you speak because you know when you talk you have to say something real.

The other thing is, if you grow up broke you learn how to be resourceful and create a plan. I’ve always had a plan B through D in lacrosse and everything else. When you’re playing a game you can’t come up with a new plan while all those bodies are in motion.

Photography courtesy of McCallie School

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About Author

Recent Chattanooga transplant Marta Mossburg fell in love with our scenic city, relocating from Maryland. She’s written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, The American Spectator, the Tribune network of newspapers, Patheos.com and The Greensboro News & Record, among other publications. Marta Mossburg is a frequent contributing writer for Chattanooga Magazine.

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