Man’s Work?

March 01, 2000 4 min read

It’s been almost a year since Andrew Baumgartner, a kindergarten teacher in Augusta, Georgia, was named the 1999 National Teacher of the Year. Baumgartner is only the second kindergarten instructor to win the prestigious title in the 48-year history of the honor. But even without the award, Baumgartner is an anomaly—nationally, men constitute less than 5 percent of the child-care work force, according to Childcare Information Exchange, an industry magazine. So as Baumgartner reaches the end of his tour of duty in the public eye, the question arises: Is America getting more comfortable with the idea of men teaching tots?

Some experts on early childhood education see signs that men are increasingly welcome in the field. Mark Bittner, coordinator of the child- development labs at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, says parents would like to see more men in his centers. “I hear from families that they want a male involved because they want their children to know that men can have nurturing roles,” he says. "[Parents] know that children crave caring from males.”

Michelle Soltero, president-elect of the 10,000-member California Association for the Education of Young Children, says she has seen an increase in the number of men attending the early childhood classes she teaches at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California. The idea that men might want to work in preschool classrooms still puzzles some staff and parents, she says, but an enlightened preschool director can quickly change that attitude. “An administrator who truly believes in having both men and women involved in the lives of children will set the tone for the center,” Soltero adds.

Still, early childhood education is not an easy career path for men. Many things combine to keep the numbers of male preschool teachers low, from paltry pay to the conventional wisdom that child care is woman’s work. Just finding a job can be difficult, Soltero says. One of her male students was particularly interested in working with infants and toddlers but simply couldn’t get hired. “He was hitting walls,” says Soltero. “He was told that he couldn’t get a job because he is male.”

Roger Neugebauer, publisher of Childcare Information Exchange, contends that men have to fight old stereotypes to win jobs. "[Preschool] directors have pointed out that there is a perception that a male is more likely to be an abuser [of children] than a female, which is based on nothing,” he says. The University of Wyoming’s Bittner says that many men believe they have to prove themselves to parents and fellow teachers. “It is just assumed,” Bittner says, “that females know how to work with young children.”

Baumgartner echoes those sentiments. The teacher says he chose to work with young children because “they haven’t had a chance to be sullied by the world. They haven’t been convinced by their peers that school is not a cool place to be.” However, early in his career, more than 20 years ago, he lived in a small community in Georgia and could not get hired to work with young children. “I could easily get a job teaching in elementary school, but it was much more difficult to get a principal to place [me] in the earlier grades,” he says. As a result, he moved to the larger city of Augusta. “That was the way our culture viewed things at that point,” he says.

Roberto Recio, 33, has taught preschool for six years at Christopher House, a social service agency in an ethnically diverse, low-income community on Chicago’s North Side. Recio says that as a male teacher, he brings a different perspective to the classroom. On the wall of his classroom, pictures of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls basketball team hang alongside storybook characters. During a unit on transportation, he brought in a tire, put butcher paper on the floor, and let the children dip the tire in paint and roll it on the paper to make tire tracks. “I like to use the real thing,” Recio says. He has also brought in a power sander for the students to use—with careful supervision—as well as sports equipment. “That is something they would not experience with a typical female teacher,” he says. Marcie Bates, a Christopher House colleague who has worked with Recio, agrees. “He is sports-oriented,” she says. “While I might touch on sports, I would never think to present the way he has.”

Recio endures his share of stereotypes. Some expect that, as a man, he is better suited to handling the tougher students, something that Recio says isn’t true. There are parents and colleagues who view him as a drill sergeant. “It’s not that I’m a tough guy, and I can scare them straight,” he says. “I don’t want that label.”

Ultimately, for Recio, the biggest challenge is one that tops the list for most early childhood educators: making enough money to help support his family. Most employees at child-care centers earn little more than the federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour, according to a 1998 report from the Center for the Childcare Workforce, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. But Recio has stayed in the field because he believes he is making a difference. “Many of the children in this inner city don’t have a dad at home or a positive male role model,” he says. Judging by the grateful phone calls Recio gets from parents, he fills that role for many children. “You can’t put a price tag on that,” he says.

—Michelle Galley