Male Preschool Teachers Face Skepticism But Earn Acceptance

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Pictures of Michael Jordan and the Bulls basketball team may seem a bit out of place hanging alongside storybook characters on the wall of a preschool classroom. But then, the person proudly displaying them is a bit of an anomaly.

"Michael Jordan and the Bulls are part of Chicago, and part of the kids," explained Roberto Recio, an imposing man who presides over a class of about 20 3- and 4-year-olds at Christopher House, a social service agency in an ethnically diverse, low-income community on Chicago's North Side.

Mr. Recio, 33, is one of six men who make up 20 percent of the center's teaching staff. That percentage is noteworthy because nationally, men constitute less than 5 percent of the child-care workforce, according to Childcare Information Exchange, an industry magazine.

An array of factors has combined to keep the numbers low, from inadequate pay to a widespread belief that men are unsuitable for work with young children.

But some experts on early childhood see signs that men are increasingly welcome in the field. Mark T. Bittner, the coordinator of the child-development labs at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, said he has found a growing demand from parents for 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 said. "[Parents] know that children crave caring from males."

For Mr. Recio, who has taught preschool at Christopher House for six years, the biggest challenge has been one that tops the list for most early-childhood educators: making enough money to help support his wife, who also works, and two young children.

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 organization based in Washington.

That is a major reason why so few men choose to teach very young children, Mr. Recio said. But he 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 said, adding that many parents call him after their children go on to school and tell him he filled that role in their children's lives. "You can't put a price tag on that," he said.

At age 24, Allen Rosales, the center's supervisor of curriculum, has spent most of his life at Christopher House—in fact, he attended the school when his mother started teaching preschool at the center 15 years ago.

Now he is her boss. "This has been my life. This is like my second home," he said of the center, which was established in 1905 and now serves about 250 children from infancy to school age.

While working toward his bachelor's degree in early-childhood education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Mr. Rosales supported himself by teaching in the after-school program at Christopher House.

"Sometimes it would slip, and the kids would call me Daddy," he said. "I knew I could make more money somewhere else, but I wouldn't have that satisfaction."

According to Michelle Soltero, the president-elect of the 10,000-member California Association for the Education of Young Children, men who work in preschool believe they can "make a difference in the lives of children."

Ms. Soltero has seen an increase in the number of men attending the early-childhood classes she teaches at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif.

And that increase may focus some needed attention on higher wages, she said. "With more men coming into the field, our salaries will be looked at differently," she acknowledged.

Questioning Motives

But early-childhood education is not an easy career path for a man to choose. Just finding a job teaching young children can be difficult, Ms. Soltero said.

One of her male students was particularly interested in working with infants and toddlers, she said, but he simply couldn't get hired. "He was hitting walls," said Ms. Soltero. "He was told that he couldn't get a job because he is male."

According to Roger Neugebauer, the publisher of Childcare Information Exchange, "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 said. He said the child-care workforce should "reflect our society and be as diverse as our society."

Mr. Bittner of the University of Wyoming formed a focus group made up of men entering the field and veteran male early-childhood educators. Many believed they had to prove themselves to parents and fellow teachers, he said. But the same didn't hold true for their female colleagues. "It is just assumed," Mr. Bittner said, "that females know how to work with young children."

Andrew Baumgartner, a kindergarten teacher in Augusta, Ga., who is the current National Teacher of the Year, echoes those sentiments.

Mr. Baumgartner said 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 said. As a result, he moved to the larger city of Augusta. "That was the way our culture viewed things at that point," he said.

Ms. Soltero of the California early-childhood educators' group said both staff members and parents still occasionally ask why men are working in preschool classrooms. But that attitude can be changed by the school's administration, she said.

"An administrator who truly believes in having both men and women involved in the lives of children will set the tone for the center," Ms. Soltero said.

That certainly holds true at Christopher House.

Creative Encouragement

Marcie Bates, the associate director of human resources development for the Chicago center, has made hiring men a priority. "It's a mission of mine, because I think that it is so important," she said. "We are fortunate to have as many as we do, especially considering that the field doesn't pay that well."

Ms. Bates started at Christopher House in 1977 as an assistant teacher in the preschool program. She later left and pursued her master's degree in education. She returned to Christopher House six years ago as a lead prekindergarten teacher and the supervisor of the pre-K program.

When she was promoted to an administrative position, she had 20 years of classroom experience, which she said helps her relationship with the staff. "Mutual admiration and respect is a main reason they stay," she said.

The respect she has for Mr. Recio was the reason she nominated him for a Kohl Teaching Award in 1998. He came in 17th out of more than 1,000 early-childhood educators nominated for their ability to teach young children intellectual, emotional, and social skills.

"One of the things that fascinated me in working with [Mr. Recio] is that he has always been so creative," Ms. Bates said.

Mr. Recio says that as a male teacher, he brings a different perspective to the classroom. For example, during a section on transportation, he brought in a tire, put some 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," Mr. Recio said. He has also brought in a power sander for the students to use. "You have to be very, very careful, and I do most of [the work]," he said. In another lesson, he brought in sports equipment. "That is something they would not experience with a typical female teacher," he said.

Ms. Bates, who has worked alongside Mr. Recio, agreed. "He is sports-oriented," she said. "While I might touch on sports, I would never think to present the way he has."

With his masculine influence has come the expectation that he is better suited to handling the tougher students, something that Mr. Recio says isn't true. Some parents and colleagues view him as a drill sergeant, he said, adding that just because he is a man doesn't mean he is not nurturing and caring.

"It's not that I'm a tough guy and I can scare them straight," he said. "I don't want that label."

According to Ms. Bates, her biggest problem regarding the male teachers at Christopher House is that they are in high demand. "All the guys here are exceptional, and bring a unique presence to this agency," Ms. Bates said.

Vol. 19, Issue 20, Pages 1, 10

Published in Print: January 26, 2000, as Male Preschool Teachers Face Skepticism But Earn Acceptance
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