Thursday, March 11, 2010

"My Child Would Really Thrive With A Male Teacher."

This is the time of year when my gender comes up a lot at school. I usually don't think much about it during the rest of the year, but February and early March are when prospective new families tour the school and many of them want a moment to speak with me. Most of these conversations include a sentence along the lines of, "My child would really thrive with a male teacher."

I think I know what they mean. I think what they're talking about is that male teachers are stereotyped as being more tolerant of loud, active play. I think what they're saying is that they can't imagine their 2-year-old sitting still for long stretches of time, just watching or singing or listening to stories, which is, of course, a not-so-flattering stereotype of female teachers. That said, I do tend to not just tolerate, but encourage loud, active play, but I know plenty of female teachers who do the same.

In general, I'm uncomfortable talking about gender, and while I acknowledge that I often benefit as a teacher from gender stereotyping, I am in awe of so many female teachers that I would never hazard to suggest that I have any advantages over any other teacher by virtue of my gender.

Last Fall I wrote about the futility of trying to get anything useful out of dividing human beings by gender and my discomfort in even discussing gender differences. In that post, I told this story:
Many years ago, my wife and I belonged to a couple’s book club. One of the books we read was Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand, which catalogs the different ways men and women communicate and why we so often misunderstand one another. Everyone in the book club agreed that Tannen had hit the nail on the head, yet every one of us also agreed that the dynamics she outlined didn’t apply to our own relationships.
I then tried to explain my opinion about gender labels:
When it comes to our friends and family, when it comes to the individual students in my class, there is nothing important to learn from Teacher Tom’s observations or Deborah Tannen’s parsing of gender and communication. Labels have their uses, but not when it comes to real relationships between real people. The only labels that matter to individuals are the labels they apply to themselves, be they 2 or 92. It’s not our place to insist that they've mislabeled themselves, but rather to try to understand and accept them at their word.
I always find myself getting twisted into a pretzel in talking about gender because I genuinely believe that any sentence that begins with "Men are . . ." or "Women are . . ." is a false statement and I intend to deal in truth.

That said, there are probably some valid academic uses for studying gender tendencies, which is why I've agreed to fill out a questionnaire for a study being conducted by a student in developmental psychology at Johnson State College in Vermont. This and our ongoing tours have got me thinking about gender again.

With the advent of our new playground, our slightly less new Little World play area has fallen on hard times. As the kids are actively exploring our new sand pit, water play, tinkering area, and garden, this "outdoor doll house" zone has been almost completely abandoned. That is, until yesterday, when Dennis' dad Terry was responsible for the Little World station. He immediately dropped to his knees in the damp wood chips that pave the area and began playing with the various "loose parts" there, all the while carrying on an imaginative narrative. Within minutes he was surrounded by children, and for the first time in awhile, Little World was alive with activity.

Just the night before, in working on the Johnson State College questionnaire, in answer to the question, What do you think the differences are between a male and a female worker at a daycare or preschool? I had written:
At bottom, I feel like the men who work in our preschool see playing with the kids to be their main reason for being there, while the women are more likely to see their main role as taking care of the kids.

This is not to say that women aren’t perfectly competent players and men are not perfectly competent caretakers, but I’ve often observed that the women I work with put more emphasis on the intellectual, emotional and physical well-being of the children, while men tend to concentrate on getting a gang of kids doing something together. I see great power in both perspectives and this is why I would like to see more men in the largely female profession.
Speaking directly to my own teaching style, I approach my class work very much the way I approached the 40+ baseball teams I coached (with players ranging from 4-years-old to 30) before becoming a teacher. I’m not necessarily conscious of this, but when I step back and take a look at what I’m doing, this is what I see. It’s all about the team and getting everyone involved. My best days are the ones when I can get a large gang of kids engaged in a single, communal project. You know, teamwork.

Observing Terry's play in Little World yesterday, I wonder if this might be a more “male” approach to working with young children. We tend to make games out of things, be they strategic, dramatic, or competitive, and these games require pulling others in, helping them find their roles, all the while keeping up a steady stream of “coach-y” banter. I often observe the fathers with whom I work engaged in this kind of activity with children, be it working together to build a fort that will never be finished, taking roles in a dress-up game that involves periodically running for shelter, or playing a game of one-upmanship at the sensory table.

I'm curious what others think about this question. I know that there are plenty of playful women out there, I work with them every day, but I wonder if others see this as being linked to gender or am I way off base.

I really don't know and it's not particularly important to me, but since there do seem to be a lot of parents out there who are actively seeking out a male teacher, I guess I should at least try to become better able to understand what they're talking about

(If you're interested in more of my general confusion and discomfort about discussing gender, my only other posts on the topic are Being A Man, which is an attempt to discuss masculine love, and Riding Our Hobby Horses Along The King's Highway, which I quoted from above.)

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Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

You have put a lo t of thought into this.

I have worked in public education over 25 years. I think that you are right for the most part. Here are a couple things you may have missed. Elementary schools are mostly taught by women, so if a child is to benefit from a male perspective .. for some parents who are thinking of this - YOU are a great source, possibly the one and only last chance for their child to have a male teacher!

Also in preschool there is very legitimately mor etiem fo rplay and building things - like tree forts, big structures etc.. which my gues is that fewer women will do.
Lastly, I don't know how many of your prospective parents are single women, but single mothers may feel a need a father figure for their young children

Anonymous said...

I suspect that it has less to do with the differences between male and female teachers and more to do with the fact that many mothers feel that their kids just need more time with caring men.

Even when mothers aren't single mothers, many fathers are very busy with work and other things outside of the home or are just emotionally uninvolved.

There are some wonderful, hands-on daddies out there (I'm married to one) but I think there are just statistically more wonderful, hands-on mothers right now and they see the need for men who will be caring and playful with their kids.

I realize this may be an unpopular thing to say and I don't mean to bash men as a whole. I just know a lot of dads who aren't very connected to their kids and the boys especially crave that sort of male interaction.

Ms Debbie said...

Tom, My husband Randy works full time with me in our classroom. The kids love him. I have often said ,we balance each other out. While I am busy making sure we are working on benchmarks, taking antedotals or scanning the menu's - he has a cowboy hat on and is running through the hallway with 4 boys in tow on a stick horse yelling " Giddy up !". He is the player. I am more a caretaker. And.. I am ok with that for the most part.

Deborah Stewart said...

Hi Tom,
It is interesting to read your perspective on the possible differences as to why women teach in early childhood versus men. I thought I would tell you about my reasons which have nothing to do with caring for children:) I am completely drawn to early childhood for these reasons...

I get to use my own creativity and watch it come to life in the preschool classroom and through the children.

I love the challenge of organizing the students a classroom environment, making the environment a place where children can truly be independent and successful.

And I love it when I see children expressing a love for learning.

I am not so big in the "caring for children" aspect - I am more in the "teaching" children :) Does this make sense.

Floor Pie said...

I agree with you that teachers should be steering away from the the binary construction of gender, especially as gender variance in children is becoming more visible and accepted (as it should be).

To answer your question, I think the notion of a male preschool teacher is just such a novel idea to people. In some cases, it arouses suspcion. People assume that a man who wants to be around small children might have bad intentions.(I was working at a preschool fair one time and a prospective parent was shocked that we even allow dads in the classroom. "Is that safe?!")

For myself, I was drawn to participating in a co-op with a male teacher simply because I miss having male co-workers. Being a SAHM is such an exclusively female world.

Yes, it's a bit of a stereotype, but on some level I think we expect a male teacher to be more straightforward, more zany & fun, and LESS petty & micromanaging (which is a big reason why parents run screaming from co-ops in the first place).

That's not always the case, of course. I'm female, but I tend to be way sillier and laissez faire than the "mom" stereotype allows. Maybe people are drawn to a male preschool teacher because it subverts a dominant gender role paradigm.

Floor Pie said...

Oh, and you know what else? I think people expect a male teacher to be more accepting and less likely to stigmatize (or pathologize) our "wild" boys.

Launa Hall said...

Great post! And it drew awesome comments.

Does your preschool subscribe to the gender balance rule when determining class make-up, as many preschools do?

I want both my son and my daughter to see male teachers, in the same spirit that I want them to see women engineers. I want them to see and feel comfortable with flexible gender roles, so they'll be equipped to create a world where gender isn't a big deal.

As a female teacher myself, I want to borrow ideas and strategies from both my male and female collegues who are adept at teaching the more active children in their classes--who are often boys. I can't change my gender (and don't want to), but I can keep aware of the role gender traditionally plays in classrooms, and work toward minimizing it.

Unknown said...

I find your take on why parents would feel their child would "really thrive with a male teacher", very interesting. I have students I felt would benefit from having a male teacher, but not because the reasons you stated. I think in today's world that we have so many single mothers, and children (boys and girls) need a good role model. Often in those situations (not all, mind you) the kids don't see any males in a POSITIVE light.

I also think it is good to show that careers cross gender boundaries. We always tell girls they can be anything they want to be, but forget to tell boys the same thing. I am so proud that 2 of my little male friends told me this week, "Mrs. Ayn, I'm going to be a MAN TEACHER when I grow up!" I even told one about you and some the awesome things you do in your class. My friend replied, "See, MAN TEACHERS are good!It's cool to be a MAN TEACHER!" :)

PS Thanks for your perspective---you always keep my on my toes and thinking!

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Yet another super post! Thank you. Interestingly the outdoor pre-schools in both Scotland and Norway have many more male staff. Not quite 50:50 yet though! I've also found that when getting parents involved in school activities, men will more likely volunteer for outdoor jobs such as creating a garden or having a BBQ. I've no idea why this is, but I just like to see parents of all genders involved. Oh yes - in my first headship, the school had 6 boys and 1 girl for a long time. It worked out fine for the most part.

Centers and Circle Time said...

First off, I love your writing..I always think you should write books.

Next, like Deb..I'm a female teacher and I didn't want to teach to "care" for the kids. I actually enjoy teaching them the skills to "care" for themselves. It gives them a sense of pride and confidence and gives me the opportunity to do what I love...TEACH! I love to create new and exciting themes and experiences that my children wouldn't otherwise experience. I love watching their face light up when we've learned a new song, dance or fingerplay.

I once watched an Early Childhood video about a female and male teaching team. The narrator told how great the students did with the arrangement stating they class was ran like a family.

I like the idea of a male teacher for the following reasons.
1. Gives my children an opportunity to form a positive relationship with a male apart of their father.
2. I love the comment above about telling my children they can be ANYTHING! Male Nurse, Mail Carrier (not mail man), etc.
3. Male role model for fatherless
4. Unique teaching techniques
5. It seemed whenever my husband has co-taught with me, I experienced less discipline issues. Not that he was the disciplinarian...but just his presence alone alone seemed to do the trick.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

I just like to see a different energy represented in my kid's lives. They tend to get a LOT of "woman" time, between me being a SAHM, dad working a lot, and the vast majority of visitors to our home (because I am home & dad is working) tend to be women, my mom, sisters, friends. It almost doesn't factor in for me how good my husband is when he is home (I hope you know what I mean) in regards to me thinking it is good for them to have MORE time with a male energy in a caregiver/teacher/interactive role. I know they also crave it, as they often react visibly more enthusiastically to a man that pays attention to them or interacts with them than a woman. I do not think they like men more, I think they just have less opportunity to interact with men on that level. I also think it is GREAT modeling for them to see men be kind & patient & fun & interested in what they have to say or what they ware doing.

Unknown said...

We expect Male Teacher in Primary School.But why they are not Interested to do Primary School Job? I Think Low Salary. Are you agree with me?