Friday, July 15, 2011

"Male Energy"

As a boy, we didn't eat out in restaurants much, but when we did, the finest of dining was to be found at those that gave you drinking straws sleeved in their own paper wrapper. We'd grab them in our fists, then smack them down on the table top to expose one end of the straw. Then we blew through the open end causing the wrapper to take off like a rocket. It seemed like the kind of thing a parent would forbid a child from doing in public, at the dinner table, but mom and dad said nary a word, possibly because they controlled it by limiting us to one straw per visit.

One of the big downsides of the wrapper rocket is that it's really just a
one-off deal, unless you want to take the time and effort required to slide
the wrapper back on your straw each time, which means we never
really got to experiment with the concept.

But let me tell you, the people making straws for restaurants these days are making crap wrappers. It's been years since I've been able to recreate that experience. I don't know why (although I suspect corporate cost-cutting measures) but whenever I try to blow, there's already a tear somewhere in the paper allowing my sharply blown breath to just sort of feebly whisper out into the world, leaving me with the much less advanced method of removing my wrapper by hand, not to mention: no rocket.

I found this simple, yet brilliant idea for Straw Rockets on Mad About
Science's website. You need straws of different diameters. (I used bubble tea straws
and standard issue straws.) Cut off the larger straws into rocket lengths,
then pinch the top and seal it with a bit of masking tape. Slide this over
the smaller diameter straw and blow!

Last week I found myself eating dinner at one of those burger places that feature mondo sized fork-and-knife gourmet burgers in a kitschy, old-style malt shop-ish atmosphere, at a table with some of my daughter's teenaged friends -- boys. I was shocked, pleasantly so, when a wrapper rocket suddenly flew under my nose. Whoa, I thought, I'm coming back to this place. They even have retro drinking straws! It was only upon inspection that I discovered the young man had, before blowing, carefully twisted the wrapper until he had closed off the holes from which the air could escape. Excellent! Kids these days! (I guess I'm aging into one of those geezers who complains that corporations aren't what they used to be instead of kids.)

Here you can see I even captured an image the projectile in flight! The great advantage of
these is that you can easily use them over and over again, allowing the kind of
 experimentation that the wrapper rockets don't allow.

I don't think about gender much, at least when it comes to me and my chosen profession. It's true that we're fairly rare birds, men in early childhood education, but there are enough of us that I don't feel all alone, and there is a proud tradition that includes guys ranging from Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo to the doctors Spock and Seuss. There is, however, currently a low intensity discussion going on at the Teacher Tom Facebook page about why there aren't more men in early childhood education.

Although the challenge of again finding your rocket on our wood chip
 paved ground is almost as much of a challenge as sliding 
a wrapper back onto a straw.

I've generally taken the position that, in the US at least, it's about pay. Right or wrong, men are still more likely to be the primary bread winners and preschool pay is very low. Most of the preschool teachers I know are either young single women or have spouses with decent incomes. My own wife is a business executive, which is true of all the other preschool teaching guys I know.

There were other challenges as well. For instance, when you wanted to see what would
happen when you shot a rocket into the vegetables, you had to be careful or it
would just slip off before you got around to blowing. There was a trick we had to 
learn about keep the rocket launcher tipped slightly up so gravity wouldn't snatch it
from us.

When I first contemplated becoming a teacher I went to talk with Tom Drummond, a brilliant and recently retired ECE instructor at North Seattle Community College, under whose auspices our cooperative preschool system runs. As the only male I knew in the profession, I specifically went to ask him two questions:

  1. People keep telling me that we need more male preschool teachers. What do they mean?
  2. What can I do about the suspicions of pedophilia?

To answer the second question first, Tom's straight-forward reply was, "If there is even a whiff of suspicion you'll have to retire and move to Bimini." That's a scary thought, actually, and one I know is on many men's minds when they consider teaching young children. All it would take is for one person to maliciously or mistakenly lay down that accusation and, frankly, it's over. Seriously, who's going to send their kids to a school with that kind of cloud hanging over it?  I even had one parent tell me that she had never told her father that her child's preschool teacher is a man because he would "simply assume you were molesting the kids." It's sick from whatever angle you look at it. In a way we're all living on borrowed time, even female teachers, but especially male ones. So, you know, there's that reason on top of all the others.

We tried them out on the swings as well. Would our swinging motion launch the rockets farther?

As for the question about why we need more males in ECE, he answered that he didn't really think that there was anything that a man could do that a woman couldn't when it came to young children, but he supposed they were talking about the tendency for men to encourage more risk taking and, perhaps, bring more humor into the classroom. I hate even writing that down because it somehow pushes aside all the hilarious female teachers who have their kids challenging themselves every day, but I do think, in very general terms, that is what is meant when parents talk about wanting more "male energy" in their child's life.

And let me back peddle even more by saying, I don't know and please correct me if I'm wrong.

Or how about making it go higher by bending the straws like this?

I will conclude with a warning, however.  Should you be dining in any establishments in the Seattle area featuring straws wrapped in paper, this aging hippie dude is gonna be blowing some wrapper rockets across his table and, if all goes right, they'll be landing on yours. My wife will not be pleased, but I hope she is a bit amused and that she will see it is a charming manifestation of my "male energy."

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Anonymous said...

That fear of accusation is far and away the most frightening part of going into education as a male. When I am with my partner, she approaches children and their parents on the street all the time. Just to say hello, and how cute the kid is and maybe exchange a few smiles and giggles with the kid. I always join her and am warmly received. But when I am alone I often think twice, maybe give a smile, but always just walk on by. I am genuinely afraid that the mom or dad will assume the worst of me.

Anonymous said...

As a homeschooling mother, I actively look for male teachers for my sons. They get "male energy" interactions with their father and coaches. But what they miss is seeing a nurturing man in a professional position of caring for and teaching children, a very rare animal. Not to mention, one who has realistic expectations of their behavior. I cringe when I hear "boys will be boys," and yet on many an occasion it rings true. Though they have female teachers who are great fun, encourage risks, and tolerate impulsivity, there is nothing like that deep connection a boy has with a male teacher - someone, he feels, who "gets" him, especially after he really made a poor choice of action!

Carrie said...

I work for Head Start and I can shed a little light onto why we think it's good to have "male energy" in our classrooms... Simply put, the majority of our children have minimal exposure to positive role models. 70% of the children come from single parent homes and only 30% of the caregivers we have listed are males. Those boys LOVE every minute that a man comes into the classroom and interacts with them.

Aunt Annie said...

Yes, I agree with Carrie 100%. Boys need men in their lives and many just don't have that privilege. My partner is one of those guys who is a boy-child-magnet, partly because he's a Real Man who works with tractors and chainsaws but also because he leads with his heart. I try to bring him into my students' lives whenever I can find an excuse- a tree needs trimming, we need a Santa for the Christmas party, etc- but he is inevitably eyed with suspicion by the other adults. It breaks my heart, as he has so much to offer.

Stacey said...

I had a male teaching assistant in my Head Start classroom for about five years or so. Shane was amazing! He did have a stipulation that he would do just about anything I asked him to do, but would not go into the girls' bathroom (for the same reasons you mentioned in your blog). That worked for me. I was in charge of the girls' bathroom, no problem.

In my experience, both boys and girls need positive male role models and these are lacking in many homes. They need to form bonds with male adults and be able to trust that they will be there day after day and love them unconditionally. Boys need to see it's okay to be nurturing. (Shane did not mind in the least playing house with children in dramatic play.) And girls need to witness the respect and care that they will someday seek in a spouse.

Shane also did a lot of active play with the kids and was a great asset with our tools, since I know very little about them. His wife is also a business professional and Shane farmed with his dad in the evenings. He left to help out more on the farm as his dad aged. He was a huge asset to our classroom and made a difference in the lives of so many children. I have had several wonderful female assistants, but miss that male energy in the classroom.

Wendy said...

I was really excited about having a male teacher in my son's first preschool. The school didn't work out for our family, but I was still happy to see a male teacher. As a female engineer, it has more to do with exposing my kids to the 'outliers' in any field. "Most teachers/engineers/construction workers/nurses have this in common, but that doesn't mean other people aren't interested in doing the same things."

Let the Children Play said...

I've always thought it must be about pay too Tom. To support a family on a preschool teacher's wage would be tough. I would love to see more males in early childhood because there are males in the world - it is a truer representation of society to have both males and females in a preschool. I've also noticed that kids naturally engage in more rough and tumble play with males - something boys in particular need.

Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom - I wrote on your FB page so I will make this brief. I am thrilled for men AND women to commit to ECE if it is a match for how and with whom they would like to spend their days. I vote for 'quality' of relationship by fe/male educators with their students, not 'quantity' of more men who - perhaps - don't want to be there. OH, and I like to shoot the papers off straws, too :)

Saya said...

I agree with Jeanne there...
Male role model figure is definitely needed in ECE, however, quality and commitment weighs a big deal!
I tend to think, though, because of all the odds that male teachers must face/fear, Male teachers in ECE just might have more commitment as they come in, and stay in, this field... Maybe?? I might be wrong. I've just seen so many female that are just there for wrong reasons...

Needless to say, though, there are wonderful, committed, fun, high in quality kind of fe/male teachers everywhere! :)

Niki Buchan said...

I just had to add my bit to this conversation as this is a subject close to my heart. As an educational consultant a lot of my training is currently on boys, male role models and risk! The ideal would be to see the adults in early education reflect society - both genders, all ages, all cultures etc. The reality is that we are unlikely to achieve 50% male role models in early education in the near future(although we can strive towards this) and females can not be males BUT females can support children and in particular the boys by identifying their needs and adjusting teaching styles to motivate and engage all children. We need to consult with the children and listen to their needs and then use our skills to support all children. As Head of Nature Kindergartens in Scotland I have experienced the many benefits having males in the centre bring to the environment.

Males in Early Childhood said...

According to research in this area you are right Tom that the two main reasons men give for not entering the early childhood profession or leave it is because of the low pay & the suspiciousness surrounding them.

There are other reasons too. Such as the low status of the profession, which in itself is a reason for the low pay. Some male egos just can't bare being outshone by their peers career wise. There's also the view that caring for children is women's work, although I believe this to an outdated concern as society is quickly changing in this respect. Finally some men feel as if they'll be an island in a sea of women with little masculinity to feed off or into.

I personally believe that there are numerous positives about increasing the number of men working with young children. However, my main point is that the sector cannot reflect society or connect with communities if its workforce doesn't more closely reflect gender representation in those communities. So many families encounter female only environments within early childhood services that their children have little or no opportunities to develop a notion of men, whether positive or negative. Most, if not all significant adults in their lives could well be female.

For much of my teaching career I was the sole income & although my wife now works casually I am still the main income earner.

ps: I actually wrote something on a simialr topic in relation to a BBC article on my blog recently.

kristin @ preschool daze said...

you are right on.

right on.

i consider myself silly, a risk encourager, active, okay with a lot of noise....but things kick up a notch when my male co-worker is there.

oh, the noise.

i love it. male or female, i am so grateful when children have someone who wants to be with them.

p.s. years ago we were given an industrial sized box of wrapped straws and let the kids make straw rockets until they were all unwrapped. now that i think of it, there were a lot of duds. maybe it's the trend.

Tom Bedard said...

With over 35 years in the EC field, I can count on one hand the # of times I have felt rebuffed because I was a male working in the field. The overwhelming response has been one of encouragement. I will admit the only way I was able to stay in the field so long was because I was hired by a progressive school system with a teacher's salary. (Not that public school teachers make a lot, but at least in Minnesota, they make a lot more than EC teachers outside the public school system.)

People interested in this subject may want to check out MenTeach, a clearinghouse for information about men teaching at:

Teacher Tom said...

You know, Tom, other than the mom telling me about her father's prejudices I mention here, I've also never felt rebuffed or suspected . . . at least in the classroom.

I feel fortunate to work in a cooperative preschool where there are lots of parents always with me in the classroom. We have a policy that adults (male or female) can't be alone with kids (except, of course, your own). This is ostensibly in place to protect the kids, but I always say it's really there to protect the parents.

One of my biggest challenges is when I'm not in my role as preschool teacher. Then I DO often see the suspicion in parents' eyes if I interact with their kids. The technique I use when I'm out in public is to always engage the parent first, smile, speak, make eye contact. You know, make sure to get permission first.

Tom Bedard said...

Tom, one of the few times I felt rebuffed was when I was first hire as an infant/toddler teacher. A mom told me she did not want me to change her daughter's diaper. She wanted the female aide to do it. I did not take offense and told her I would not change her daughter's diaper. By the end of the term, she had given me permission to change her daughter's diaper.

Thirteen years ago, I moved to a room with an observation window. I was intimidated at first, but then I thought that my practice should be transparent. My practice has actually changed because of the window. I now hug more, rough-and-tumble more and read with children on my lap more. I am now always hoping others are watching.

I totally agree with you on interacting with children outside our role as preschool teacher.

Anonymous said...

As a young female preschool teacher I would love to see more males in the field. I think there is something that men can bring to the classroom setting that really gets the kids excited. I've previously taught in low-income schools and the kids were desperately seeking a positive male role model in their lives. When my husband would walk in to meet me for lunch the kids would swoon over to him and try to get his attention and validation. While I can understand the pay being a challenge for the males I wish they could somehow get past it. Perhaps with an equally successful spouse. And to think of accusations of pedophilia is stomach turning. I've never even considered this to be an issue until reading this blog and it's really upsetting to know that is a looming judgement placed upon you. If I ever have a son, I'd love to find a center with a male staff member to keep those positive bonds going.