Looking For A Few Good Men

November 01, 1990 5 min read

But while the women’s movement has expanded women’s career options beyond traditionally “feminine’’ occupations such as nursing and teaching, it has not had the converse effect of increasing the presence of men in such jobs.

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. Although little national data are available on teachers’ gender in preschool and the early grades, 1987-88 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 12.4 percent of the nation’s roughly 1.2 million full-time public elementary school teachers were men.

The vast share of male teachers are concentrated in the upper grades, and many trained in early-childhood education move rapidly into higher paying and higher status jobs in school administration and higher education.

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

A national staffing study by the Child Care Employee Project reported that child-care workers with some college education earned, on average, $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 whose jobs are the main source of income for the family, observes Rick Crosslin, a 4th grade teacher at the Chapel Glen Elementary School in Indianapolis. For Richard Ellenburg, a kindergarten teacher at the Hillcrest Elementary School in Orlando, Fla., money is an ongoing worry. “It’s getting more frustrating now because I’m close to 40, and I need to start making preparations for my kids to go to college,’' says Ellenburg, whose wife also teaches.

But factors beyond salary also sway men from careers in early-childhood education. “I think it’s status more than anything else,’' asserts Robert Ash, assistant superintendent of elementary education for the White Bear Lake school district in suburban St. Paul, Minn. “When a man gets married and goes to his in-laws’ family reunion, it is not a status thing to say, ‘I teach kindergarten, 1st grade, or early childhood.’

Ellenburg has run into a different version of the same problem. When discussing his plans to get a Ph.D. in early-childhood education, “people are just flabbergasted,’' he says.

Such attitudes, which women often face as well, stem from a lack of understanding and respect for the profession. “People in general, and many people in education,’' Nations notes, “do not recognize the complexities of teaching young children.’'

David Giveans, publisher of Nurturing Today, a journal focusing on parenting and fatherhood, puts it another way. The field, he says, “is still looked upon as babysitting.’'

Besides misconceptions about the challenges of working with younger children, the notion that men are temperamentally not suited to it poses another barrier; some parents and educators think that women are simply better at nurturing than men.

Ellenburg recalls when he began seeking a kindergarten job in the late 1970s: “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.’' Ellenburg taught 6th and 4th grades before he was able to land a kindergarten job.

Of all the barriers to a greater male presence in early-childhood education, none is as emotionally charged as the specter of child molestation.

Most teachers of young kids say that some physical contact and expression of affection toward their pupils is a natural, and important, part of their work. But well-publicized child-abuse cases in recent years have cast suspicion on this kind of behavior and especially on men who seek to work with young children. “It’s the new reason not to have males in early-childhood education,’' says Dominic Gullo, an earlychildhood education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “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.

Some educators say they have heard female child-care directors admit a reluctance to hire men because of the backlash from childabuse 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 Clay of Washington’s School for Friends.

But other men in the field say that they haven’t confronted, or been encumbered by, this kind of attitude. “It has surprised me when I hear other men say they are under suspicion of being a pedophile,’' says Jim Morin, director of Bernie’s Place, a day-care center in Madison, Wis. “I haven’t felt that.’'

Ellenburg of Orlando says that building strong relationships with parents and welcoming them into classrooms can allay such fears.

The possible effect of increasing the number of men in early-childhood programs is not clear. Research on how teachers’ gender affects children’s learning offers no clear proof that boys benefit from having a male teacher in the early grades. Some studies have linked young boys’ tendency to do less well than girls in school to the predominance of female teachers in those grades. But others, like one conducted by Beverly Fagot, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, have concluded 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. Both male and female teachers, she says, tend to reinforce such behaviors.

But, Fagot adds, that doesn’t necessarily mean they teach the same way. In her research, male preschool teachers offered more positive feedback and were physically more affectionate and active with both boys and girls than female teachers were. 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,’' says Anne Mitchell, an associate dean at the Bank Street College of Education. Encouraging male involvement, she notes, “is more a question of trying to mirror a society we would wish to live in.’'

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

Deborah L. Cohen, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Looking For A Few Good Men