KATE RUSSELL investigates why there are so few male early childhood education teachers in New Zealand.

Early childhood teaching is one of the most gender-segregated professions in New Zealand. According to the Ministry of Education’s latest statistics from July 2011, over 98 per cent of early childhood education (ECE) teachers are female. That’s a total of 379 male teachers, compared with 20,267 female teachers.

However, Ministry of Education statistics say that male ECE teachers have nearly trebled since 2001, and have grown as a percentage from 1.1 per cent in 2001 to 1.8 per cent in 2011. Despite this growth, there is still a shockingly small number of men teaching in our early childhood centres.

For the men who have chosen early childhood teaching as a profession, what has attracted them? For Simon Easton, who has been teaching our nation’s littlies for 36 years and works at Waimauku Childcare Centre in Auckland, it was a combination of things.

“I did some babysitting for friends when I was at school and liked working with young children,” he says. “Also, our family swelled dramatically from four to 11, and younger children were a big feature in my world.”

For Roger Wilde, who is an over-twos teacher at Auckland Point Kindergarten in Nelson, it was meant to be.

“I was made redundant from a cooking job, and I had to make a decision quick because I didn’t want to return to restaurant work,” he says. “I wanted a change and I wanted family-friendly work hours.”

Roger was accepted into the University of Auckland’s Graduate Diploma course with a scholarship, which was a huge achievement considering there were over 400 applicants for 35 places. Having his own children had opened Roger’s eyes to the world of ECE, and he learned it can be a fun but professional career.

Another Nelsonian, Stu Cottam, who is the head teacher at Little Footprints Early Learning Centre in Tahunanui, was attracted to the profession because he enjoys working with children and doing an active, challenging job. Simon, Roger, and Stu were all the only graduating males in their classes.

There are many reasons why men in New Zealand would be inclined not to choose early childhood teaching as a career. Dr Brent Mawson, Principal Lecturer at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education, believes that the small percentage of male teachers is a reflection of the lack of prestige of early childhood teaching.

“We need a change of social attitudes so that early childhood teaching is seen as an appropriate and esteemed vocation for men,” he says.

There is also the view that early childhood teaching has traditionally always been seen as “women’s work” and this perception still strongly exists today.

Joanie Wilson, who is the head teacher at Auckland Point Kindergarten, believes this may be one of the reasons for the low percentage of male teachers.

“I think it was never respected as a valued role for males to be part of and it was ‘just for women’,” she says.

There is also the stigma surrounding child abuse when it comes to men teaching in ECE, which came about after the Civic Crèche incident in 1992, when a male ECE teacher was charged with sexually abusing children in his care. Even though there are huge misperceptions about this case, the result of all the media attention and gossip that followed would put many men off the idea of becoming an ECE teacher.

The profession is also not seen as particularly well paid, and the training would involve men being either the only, or one of few, males in the class, just as a male teacher would be the minority in a teaching team. Roger believes that many men wouldn’t consider choosing this profession until they have become fathers, as was his experience. By that stage, most men have already established a career.

Parents and children alike feel privileged if they have a male teacher in their centre. Roger, who has been teaching for one and a half years, says the reaction to him being a male ECE teacher is overwhelmingly positive.

“I know it influences some parents in their choice of preschool,” he says. “Several solo mothers have said to me directly how much they appreciate having a male teacher for their child.”

Joanie says that the children love Roger.

“There is one child who seeks out Roger, and when he comes in the morning, he runs through the door saying ‘Roger, where’s Roger?’ and runs to give him the biggest hug.”

According to Simon, things have been very positive within the profession, with parents, and in communities.

“People have always seemed quite enthusiastic about the idea of men working with young children,” he says, “and parents have always have been very positive, as have their children.”

Stu has had positive reactions from parents during his seven years as a qualified teacher.

“Some seem very glad I’m there, and I’ve heard that a few parents have brought their boys to the centre because I’m there,” he says.

Just like female teachers, men bring their own individual strengths and interests to their teaching practice. As Stu says, “There are as many differences within sexes as between sexes.” For example, Simon is especially interested in insects and spiders and language development. Stu is a keen sportsperson and likes to be active with the children. He has also worked as a primary teacher and is interested in early literacy and numeracy skills. Roger, on the other hand, brings his many interests of music, cooking, languages, natural health, sustainability, spirituality, ICT, and his knack for fixing things into his teaching practice.

There are, however, certain qualities that a male ECE teacher can bring that a female teacher cannot. Brent Mawson believes that men are more relaxed about rough and tumble play and more inclined to allow children to test their physical limits.

“As so much of learning in ECE occurs in the conversations and interactions with adults, males bring a different set of experiences, interests, and sense of humour into the setting, which widens and enriches the experiences available to children,” he says.

Roger believes that there is one important thing that a male ECE teacher can bring that a female cannot, and that is only a man can be a male role model.

“Only a man can model the possible ways to be a man, and it feels very important to me that I provide children with a positive male role model,” he says.

Joanie agrees. “During my teaching career, there have been children without a male in their life, and I know at our kindergarten this is so,” she says. “Roger’s presence allows children to see a male in a positive light. While we women kaiako can play rough and tumble and hammer in nails, it just isn’t the same as having a male’s presence.”

Simon believes that having a mix of male and female teachers is important.

“When there is a mix of genders among adults in a centre, the range of perspectives is greater and the children are likely to have a wide range of people and experiences to choose from,” he says. “I think, too, that children seeing men and women working together cooperatively and constructively is very important for their social development.”

Joanie loves having a male on her teaching team.

“Roger complements our team,” she says. “There are times when we say things like ‘come on ladies’ then we stop and rephrase and have a little chuckle.”

Do children react differently to male teachers? Not particularly, so it seems. As Stu has found, children take to different teachers.

“I have many children that follow me around all day and others that are very wary of me,” he says.

For Simon, who works with infants and toddlers, their reaction is very much individual.

“There is not the same sense of them understanding how ‘social roles’ affect them as in the preschool,” he says.

Roger doesn’t notice whether children react differently towards him because he is a man.

“All teachers are individuals, each unique in the way they are with children, and children respond accordingly,” he says.

So, why do these men love being early childhood teachers?

“Without a doubt, the greatest thing in my job is helping children to make successful contributions to the work of the group,” says Simon. “There is a high level of skill and training involved in settling children and keeping them fed, slept, changed, clean, and happy so they can learn. It is really challenging and rewarding work.”

Roger clearly loves his job. “I get deep satisfaction at doing something positive for individual children, for their whānau, for my community. It also requires me to be authentic, real, caring and loving – which is both hugely challenging and hugely rewarding.”

Over the past couple of years, there has been a call for scholarships and financial incentives to encourage men into ECE, which could be a step toward drawing more males into what is currently a profession dominated by females. As Brent Mawson puts it, “Children miss out by not having the chance to interact with male teachers in ECE settings, just as men are missing out on the chance to have an exciting and fulfilling occupation.”

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