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Q & A: Researcher Studies Male Career Changers Who Go Into Teaching

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Increasing numbers of older, more experienced professionals are changing careers to become teachers, but little research has focused on the implications of this influx on schools.

Helen Freidus, a graduate faculty member at Bank Street College of Education in New York City, has studied a specific population of career changers: men who become elementary-school teachers. Ms. Freidus, who presented her findings at last month's annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, believes that these men face unique challenges in entering schools long dominated by women.

She discussed her findings with Staff Writer Daniel Gursky.

Q. Do most males who change careers and go into elementary-school teaching really know what they're getting themselves into?

A. Second-career teachers in general have certainly given it a lot of thought, and they've done a lot of research, but there are a lot of surprises when they really get into the classroom. Perhaps for men, the surprises are even greater, partly because they tend to have had fewer experiences with children on an organized basis, and partly because they come with a sense of idealism, and maybe a little touch of romance that makes it more of a surprise.

Q. Are the pressures of the job different because men are entering what's basically been a woman's world?

A. Absolutely. There's a whole sense of fragmentation that isn't part of the lives of most of them. If they've been executives, they had secretaries to manage a lot of what goes on, and [now they are] dealing with all the multitudinous decisions simultaneously and the needs of the children. They may understand what they're getting into cognitively, but there's a visceral component that is a surprise.

Q. You also talk about some of the financial concerns that men, especially those with families, encounter in making the transition to what might be a lower-paying job.

A. There's still an element in our society that really expects men to be the primary breadwinner. Very often, the stress happens when the money begins to go, when the reality hits of the change in income; that adds a whole degree of anxiety. It's not that women don't have that anxiety, but the men have been so socialized to expectations of taking care of, supporting [their families].

Q. You found that men and women career changers seem to go into teaching for different reasons.

A. One thing that differentiates the men who come into teaching from the women is the whole idea that men are doing this for a challenge. Women want it to be challenging and they're very professional, but for men it seems over and over that they want to do something that's very different, they want to try something that's really hard. And I think that's both their strength and the source of some of the problems they feel upon induction into the field.

Q. Another issue you address are the problems the men had with their cooperating teachers and mentors. Can you explain some of those problems?

A. I think that cross-sex mentoring in general can be problematic. The literature shows that's true in the corporate world, and it seems to be borne out here.

A lot of the cooperating teachers are really impressed by the men that they get. Because they themselves aren't used to articulating their practice, they often think that what they do is easy, so it's hard for them to share with the men just what it is the very basics are. And that, of course, is what any novice really needs to know.

And some of [the cooperating teachers] feel that the men who are coming in with a transformative vision of teaching--and I think most men who come into elementary-school teaching as a second career really do have a vision of wanting to make things different--[are operating] from either a naivete or an indictment of their practice, and so they become threatened and dialogue becomes difficult.

Q. Is part of the problem that men may be less likely to seek and receive the support they need as novices?

A. I don't think that they have trouble taking support when it's available. In fact, it's been my experience that they are very grateful for it. But they don't necessarily ask for it. Sometimes, like any new teacher, they don't even know the questions to ask.

Q. If schools were aware of these problems, might they be able to ease the transition for second-career teachers, and males in particular?

A. I think so. There really needs to be dialogue and a team process between the college, the college adviser, and the school so that there will be more people able to articulate what's going on. If there's a feeling of collegiality, then it's more likely that whatever's problematic can be put on the table and dealt with.

Q. Are you planning to do more research on this subject?

A. Definitely. I started out looking at the gender implications of women coming to teaching as a second career. In part of that study, I included men just to kind of get a counterpoint. As I began to look at the data and think about it, the counterpoint became interesting, too. It has implications for understanding both the whole world of second-career people, and also for highlighting the special needs of men.

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