I’m a primary school teacher by trade. In fact, I began my career as an early childhood teacher. And I’m really proud of that.
But, it hasn’t always been something that’s easy to be proud of. I’ve heard the comments in pubs and around footy ovals about how there must be something “a little bit suss” about a six-foot-four bloke who hangs around little kids all day.
I’ve seen the online slurs questioning the sexuality and morals of men like me and known that I’m almost the perfect avatar for such an accusation. On more than one occasion, I lied about my job to sidestep that raised eyebrow, knowing as I did that it was a conversational pothole.
Despite being, if I may say so myself, a really good primary school teacher, there have been moments when I wondered if I should switch to a career that was more “manly”.
And droves are doing exactly that. In the 1950s, the male primary school teacher rate was around 41 per cent of the workforce. By the 1980s it had dipped to 30 per cent and the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data reveals that we’ve now fallen below 18 per cent for the first time in our nation’s history.
Both this alarming data and my own experience are mirrored in a critical study by Tasmanian researcher and primary school teacher Dr Vaughan Cruickshank, who has taken a view on not only what’s stopping men becoming teachers, but why experienced and valuable men are leaving the profession.
Cruickshank’s research underscores three predominant themes that we must address as part of our efforts to tackle a hastily worsening teacher workforce crisis.
First, we need to address the fears felt by male teachers about physical contact with girls in primary schools. My rule was always not to make physical contact with a student unless a female staff member was in the room and fully attentive. Some male teachers simply rule all physical contact out in its entirety.
This isn’t ideal when a six-year-old girl whose dog has died is imploring you for a hug or when the same girl crashes to the asphalt at recess and needs a Band-Aid on a scraped knee.
I know many male teachers who would not apply that Band-Aid, deferring instead to handing the Band-Aid to the weeping girl to apply herself. I also know that my female colleagues would never have thought twice about the hug or the Band-Aid.
The best a male teacher can do, according to Cruickshank, is adopt compensatory connections such as humour or high-fives. A male teacher can “earn” the right to hug in some schools, but that can take many years and shifting schools means starting all over again.
The second factor driving men from our primary school staff is workload. This, of course, isn’t to suggest that female teachers aren’t working hard – they most certainly are.
But when a staff has a lone male, or maybe two, they are gazed at expectantly when any year level wants to run a camp or excursion, a sporting team needs coaching, a ball is stuck on the roof or, as Cruickshank mentions, anything needs fixing or carrying.
And crucially, due to the heavy male role model responsibility they carry, their classes are often loaded with “naughty boys” meaning that they’re disproportionately burdened with behaviour challenges in their classes year after year – despite having no more skill, capability or training than their female peers.
Finally, there’s a distinct and toxic social isolation that can come from being a male primary school teacher. It can feel like the staff room conversations aren’t really for you and this leads many men to withdraw into further work at their desks or just to sink silently into their phones rather than engage with colleagues.
Those who opt for extra work are often also seen as high-performing and encouraged rapidly into bigger responsibilities or leadership roles. Of course, that likely means leaving the classroom behind – and the personal reward of being a positive influence on kids who need it.
Many male teachers report that they seek a balance in their life outside of school for this reason. Some do it functionally and join a sporting team to establish male friendships, but some opt for a more dysfunctional route and hit the pub with concerning regularity.
For this reason, we often see many schools in an area with almost no male teachers while one school has plenty. More male teachers, it seems, equals more and more male teachers.
We desperately need to make primary schools places where male teachers want to be. With so many boys growing up without adequate father figures in their lives, primary principals and single mums will tell you emphatically that good male teachers are an invaluable commodity.
And to do it, we’ll need to break the prevailing conditions and stereotypes that are costing us too many of our male teachers. We should no longer tolerate the half-joking stigma that, if you’re a male primary school teacher, you must be one of the three Ps – the principal, the PE teacher or a paedophile.
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