Published Online:

Early-Childhood Educators Bemoan The Scarcity of Males in Teaching

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

As the only male teacher at the Westwood School in Dalton, Ga., Jimmy E. Nations has found himself in some awkward situations.

The gray-bearded 1st-grade teacher, who returned to the elementary-school classroom after an 18-year stint as a school administrator, enjoys recounting one such incident, involving a consultant who visited the school.

"She asked me if I was the principal," he recalls, "and when I said no, she said, 'Will you come get these things out of my car?"'

"She assumed that if I was not the principal, I must be the custodian," explains Mr. Nations, who says he had begun rearranging chairs in the conference room at the visitor's request when the school principal walked in and formally introduced them.

"She turned every shade in the rainbow," the teacher says. "She was so embarrassed that she had made a very stereotypical kind of assumption."

Such assumptions--coupled with low salaries, a perceived lack of status, and fears stirred by highly publicized cases of child sexual abuse involving male teachers--have helped to keep early-childhood education a predominantly female field.

But as changing social norms and economic necessity redefine men's and women's roles and swell the ranks of working parents, some educators are increasingly troubled by this situation. They say that more male teachers in the early grades would help provide support for children from single-parent homes and, more importantly, reinforce the belief that men, as well as women, can play nurturing roles.

"If in fact we want in our society to view men as nurturers ... we have to practice it," says James W. Clay, co-director of the School for Friends, a Quaker preschool in Washington.

"We should be encouraging men into these roles, and kids should have different models of what it means to be a caring human being," adds James Levine, director of "The Fatherhood Project" of the Families and Work Institute, a national clearinghouse that tracks efforts to help workers juggle work and family demands. The project is exploring ways to support fathers' involvement in child-rearing.

Low salaries, experts acknowledge, have been a prime deterrent to recruiting men into early-childhood education, particularly at the preschool level. But perhaps harder to combat than low pay are stereotypes.

Many still view "taking care of kids as women's work," says Jim Morin, director of Bernie's Place, a day-care center in Madison, Wis. "It lacks the 'glamour' that as men we are helped to set our sights on."

Jobs in child-care settings, which guide children at a crucial point in their development, are even less socially acceptable than jobs in schools, Mr. Morin says.

"Education in itself is bad enough," he says, "and this is a slight distance removed."

Bryan G. Nelson, health-services director of the Parents and Community Action Head Start program in Minneapolis, observes: "It's pretty hard to maintain that Clint Eastwood look when you are holding a kid with a diaper in your arms."

While the women's movement has expanded women's career options beyond traditionally "feminine" occupations such as nurse, teacher, and child-care provider, it has not had the converse effect of swelling the ranks of men in such jobs.

Data from the 1980 Census showed that men occupied only 4 percent of the nation's early-childhood teaching jobs. And the California-based Child Care Employee Project found in a survey last year that out of 1,300 child-care workers in 45 centers in five metropolitan areas, only 3 percent were male.

At most early-education meetings, quips Dominic F. Gullo, an early-childhood-education professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, "the only short line is the line to the men's room."

David L. Giveans, who once led a caucus of male members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, says conferences numbering up to 20,000 participants in recent years have drawn no more than a few dozen males.

While few national data are available on teachers by gender in preschool and the early grades, 1984-85 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics showed men accounted for 15 percent of a total of 963,870 full-time public elementary-school teachers. Its 1987-88 Schools and Staffing Study showed men made up only 12.4 percent of some 1.2 million elementary-school teachers.

The vast share of men in the field are concentrated in the upper grades, experts say, and many trained in early-childhood education move rapidly into jobs in higher education or school administration.

Men played key roles in launching the field of early-childhood education, notes Mr. Giveans, who publishes Nurturing Today, a journal focusing on parenting and fatherhood. He cites, for example, the work of James Hymes Jr., who helped establish the nation's first work-site day-care center, at a California shipbuilding company during World War II.

But much of the ensuing work was left to women, he says, and "it's been the women who have worked harder to keep the field going."

Mr. Nelson says the "loosening of roles for men and women" promoted by the 1960's counterculture, along with a desire by many men to find jobs that would help them avoid the military draft during the Vietnam War, drew larger numbers of young men into nontraditional fields such as child care.

Today, observes Mr. Morin, "there is not such a demand for counterculture membership."

The "increasing concern with economic well-being" that has drawn women from child care and education into higher-paying fields also has influenced men, Mr. Levine of the Families and Work Institute points out.

Beverly Jackson, a senior public-policy analyst for the National Black Child Development Institute, agrees. "This is a monetary society," she says. "Men, like women, try to go where they can best support their families."

The Child Care Employee Project's National Child Care Staffing Study reported that workers in the field with some college background earned an average salary of $9,293 in 1988. Elementary-school teachers fared much better, earning an average yearly salary of $25,578, according to federal statistics.

But even the school salaries are modest for men for whom such jobs are "the main source of income for the family," says Rick E. Crosslin, a 4th-grade teacher at the Chapel Glen Elementary School in Indianapolis.

As Mr. Nations, the Westwood School teacher, puts it: "One of the reasons I am able to be back in the classroom is that I have reached a point in my life when I am responsible only for myself."

"It's getting more frustrating now," says Richard Ellenburg, a kindergarten teacher at the Hillcrest Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., whose wife also teaches, "because I'm close to 40 and I need to start making preparations for my kids to go to college."

But factors beyond salaries also sway men from careers in early-childhood education.

"I think it's status more than anything else," asserts Robert W. Ash, assistant superintendent of elementary education for the White Bear Lake school district in suburban St. Paul, which has launched a project to help draw high-school students to early-childhood-education careers.

"When a man gets married and goes to his in-laws' family reunion," Mr. Ash explains, "it is not a status thing to say I teach kindergarten, 1st grade, or early childhood."

Similarly, in discussing plans for a Ph.D. in early-childhood education, Mr. Ellenburg finds "people are just flabbergasted."

Such attitudes, which sometimes confront women as well, stem from a lack of understanding and respect for the profession, educators say.

The field "is still looked upon as babysitting," Mr. Giveans says.

"People in general, and many people in education, do not recognize the complexities of teaching young children," Mr. Nations adds.

Scott Ferguson, a former kindergarten teacher who is now a middle-school counselor in Eugene, Ore., observes that gearing instruction to youngsters' widely varying developmental levels is "very demanding."

Besides misconceptions of the challenges involved in working with younger children, the notion that men are temperamentally not suited to it poses another barrier.

When Mr. Ellenburg began seeking a kindergarten job in the late 1970's, he recalls, "I had a difficult time getting a principal who could see a male in kindergarten."

"It was expressed to me that they would prefer having a male in an upper grade," he says, noting that he taught 6th and 4th grades before he was able to land a kindergarten job.

"There is also some tendency on the part of both parents and preschool teachers to think women are simply better nurturers," adds Beverly I. Fagot, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

While movies such as "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Parenthood" suggest such stereotypes are changing, Mr. Nelson says, men still encounter them in subtle ways.

"Here I was, an R.N. working in a child-care program part time changing diapers," he remembers, "and someone would come up and say, 'Here, let me do this for you."'

Subtle resistance from women may also be an obstacle.

"It's not overt, but there has been a sense that early childhood is women's domain," Mr. Levine says.

"There's a resentment sometimes when men move into the field," he maintains, especially when "they quickly move into administrative positions, bypassing otherwise capable women."

Anne Mitchell, an associate dean at the Bank Street College of Education, likens the situation to a family in which a new mother says she wants her mate to share equally in child-rearing.

"You can want that very much on an intellectual level," she says, ''but it's very hard to give up an arena where you are in charge when women clearly are not in power in the rest of society."

Women are generally supportive of male teachers, says Mr. Nelson. But the Minneapolis Head Start official adds that he sometimes senses an "unconscious" resentment of men encroaching on women's "turf."

There is a sense that "you've got everything else as a man, and now you're going to take this, too," Mr. Nelson adds.

Such views are disputed by Mr. Morin, the Wisconsin day-care-center operator, who maintains he has not known women to discourage male involvement in child care. Those impressions, he suggests, may be "more in the mind of the [man] in the minority than in the minds of the majority of women in the field."

School counselors and college advisers, who seldom direct men to the field of child development, may be another roadblock to greater male involvement, Mr. Giveans and others suggest.

To address that concern, the White Bear Lake district in St. Paul two years ago launched an "early-education-career and parenting project'' to help attract high-school students--especially boys--to careers in early education.

It is also launching a course that will offer both theory and on-site experience at early-childhood centers.

The most emotionally charged barrier to greater male participation in the field, educators say, is the specter of child molestation.

Most early-childhood teachers consider some physical contact and expressions of affection toward their pupils a natural part of their work.

Because "kids that age are tremendously physical and kinesthetic," says Mr. Ferguson, the former kindergarten teacher, working with them "requires some form of touching or physical attention."

But well-publicized child-abuse cases in recent years have cast suspicion on men who seek to work with young children.

"It's the new reason not to have males in early-childhood education," Mr. Gullo says. "In the old days, it was fear of homosexuality."

Despite the recent dismissal of charges against Raymond Buckey, the last remaining defendant and the only male charged in California's McMartin Preschool case, years of publicity surrounding what became the longest criminal trial in U.S. history have taken their toll.

"There were increasing numbers of men going into day care until the McMartin case," Ms. Fagot maintains.

"Unfortunately, these isolated cases have been generalized and increased the suspicion," adds Bryan E. Robinson, a professor of child and family development at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"You hear stories that male teachers are not being allowed to enter a bathroom of a child," Mr. Gullo says.

Some educators say they have heard female child-care directors admit a reluctance to hire males because of the backlash from child-abuse cases.

And one teacher at a New York City elementary school recalls being warned by administrators to be "extra careful" about touching students.

"No one wants to take a job where they feel like they are being scrutinized extra carefully because of their gender," notes Mr. Clay of the School for Friends in Washington.

But others dispute such claims.

"It has surprised me when I hear other men say they are under suspicion of being a pedophile," Mr. Morin says. "I haven't felt that."

Mr. Ellenburg of Orlando and others add that building strong relationships with parents and welcoming them into classrooms can quell any such fears.

There is no "typical male" in child care, asserts Mr. Nelson, who says gatherings of men in the field include "men who run marathons and others who can't stand sports."

Nonetheless, Mr. Robinson says, "these men are swimming in a sea of stereotypes"--from parents' fears that the teachers are homosexual to assumptions by supervisors that they will handle physical work and discipline problems.

"There are a lot of people who want you to move furniture," Mr. Ellenburg observes. And, like other male teachers, he often finds the students with the most difficult behavior assigned to his classes.

"Parents say, 'I'm so glad they got you--I've always wanted [my child] to have a man teacher,"' Mr. Crosslin of Indianapolis adds. "It's like I'm the generic man--they automatically assume I'll be able to help."

It can also be discomfiting, men say, to be the sole male at meetings, or to feel excluded from lunchroom conversation.

But despite the drawbacks, many relish the challenge of helping to shape a child's early development.

"The excitement a lot of those kids bring to school is great," Mr. Ferguson says. "Also, the earlier you can identify high-priority, at-risk kids, it's a great opportunity to intervene."

"I enjoy the intellectual stimulation as well as the relationships with children," Mr. Nations says.

In discussing opportunities for outdoor activity and exploring science and nature with children, Mr. Crosslin adds, "other men are envious."

Some also argue that changing family structures accentuate the need for more male teachers.

Mr. Ellenburg says his experiences with 4th graders at an inner-city school, and as a single parent, convinced him of the need for male role models in the early grades.

And the educational psychologist Spencer Holland has gone so far as to advocate the creation of all-male classes in kindergarten to 3rd grade, taught by male teachers, as a strategy to help break the cycle of school failure for urban black male students.

"Some children just have so little exposure to a man who is a nurturing, supportive friend," says Mr. Ash of the White Bear Lake district.

Recognizing such concerns, Florida's commissioner of education, Betty Castor, has targeted as a priority the recruitment of male elementary-school teachers, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

Research on how teachers' gender affects children's learning, however, offers no clear proof of the assumption that boys benefit from having a male teacher in the early grades.

Some studies have linked young boys' tendency to do less well in school than girls to the predominance of female teachers, notes Mr. Gullo, the University of Wisconsin professor.

But Ms. Fagot of the University of Oregon concludes in a review of research and her own 1981 study that young children's performance appears less linked to teachers' gender than to school settings that reward the kind of compliance deemed more stereotypically feminine.

As both male and female teachers gain experience, she says, they tend to reinforce such behaviors.

Research also shows, the University of North Carolina's Mr. Robinson adds, that men who teach young children generally "are not doing anything different than women in terms of how they respond to kids" in reinforcing masculine and feminine traits.

In her research, Ms. Fagot did find that male preschool teachers offered more positive feedback and were physically more affectionate and active with both boys and girls than women teachers were.

But other possible explanations for that finding, she says, may be that more "nurturing" men seek such jobs, or that children elicit such behaviors from them.

Ultimately, educators agree, the quality of the teacher is what counts.

"If kids have teachers who know what they are doing, they're going to be fine," Ms. Mitchell says. Encouraging male involvement, the Bank Street educator says, "is more a question of trying to mirror a society we would wish to live in."

Men in the field also offer a "positive way of modeling a cooperative division of labor," Mr. Morin says.

"When a man comes into the classroom, it presents a balanced world of men and women," Mr. Giveans suggests. "Children need to see teacher David mixing juice and bathing a child and teacher Mary out climbing a fence."

Ms. Jackson of the National Black Child Development Institute also says a lack of male teachers in the early grades may begin "building stereotypes" that eventually cause men to shun the profession.

"Children, like all people, tend to look toward jobs where they see themselves reflected," she says.

"It would be wonderful," Ms. Mitchell says, "if there were a balanced set of role models for children in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and culture" throughout a child's education.

"That's the recipe for the greatest sort of understanding and harmony."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented