‘I’m not a man, I’m a teacher’
Having been working in the early childhood field for almost 15 years, I often forget that I am any different from my colleagues. I read books, change nappies, fold laundry, prepare snacks, settle disputes, and so on. So it was a fascinating experience last year to move from a ‘regular’ permanent job to a six-month period of agency (relief) work. After feeling ‘normal’ for so long, I was thrust back into a world where my gender was an issue all over again.
Studying early childhood meant getting used to the idea of being the only male in the classroom, which often meant being singled out whenever the feminisation of the field was talked about. Similarly, when I went out on practicum, there were a few raised eyebrows from parents. After graduating I spent six years working in a rural childcare centre which had a supportive environment. Like all new graduates, I finally had to prove that I could do the job ‘on my own’, and my first year had many moments of panic and despair.
Questioning physical affection with children
One particular part of the ‘new teacher’ experience that is different for men is the soul-searching they have to do around their physical relationships with children. In my first year out, I noticed that my female colleagues had very affectionate relationships with the children they worked with. They hugged, cuddled and sometimes even kissed, and were even able to joke about the younger children who would put their hands down their shirts and touch their breasts. If my male colleagues’ experience has been at all similar to my own, then such a relaxed attitude is out of the question. I spent much of the first few years of my work reflecting upon my own standards when it came to physical affection with children. Eventually I came up with some rules that have stood me in good stead since then. Many of these are simply paying attention to boundaries, something we all need to do in our work with children. These rules are:
- All affection should be initiated, and ended, by the child. Where this is not possible (such as where the child is hurt or distressed) ask them if they would like a hug, or if they are too young to respond effectively, initiate a hug, and see if they either relax into it or stiffen up, which indicates whether they are comfortable with the contact or not.
- With children who have just started, try to stick to verbal reassurance, or very simple contact, such as hand-holding or a pat on the back, until the boundaries of the relationship have been established by that child.
- When in doubt, or feeling uncomfortable, gently disengage from the physical contact.
- Talk about these issues with colleagues and find out their opinion, whenever possible.
Inquring about me?
It is always hard to be a reliever, as you are a poor substitute for the regular staff member who knows the routine and who the children know, like and trust. At worst, you get ignored and inadequately informed about the services’ expectations of you. At best, the staff make a real effort to let you know about the ongoing routines of the day, they find you useful tasks, and perhaps ask a little about you. I noticed that, as a male, about nine out ten questions were about my gender. Don’t we have lots of things in common as early childhood staff that we could talk about instead? Over time I have come to realise that I do not ‘feel like a man’ or even really notice that I am one, unless someone draws attention to it. Instead I feel like a teacher, and I am proud of and excited by that role. Children, too, seem to see male teachers as teachers rather than as males (Sumsion, 2005, p. 120). This article aims to get you thinking about this issue yourself. Have you ever fallen into the trap of treating a male colleague as a man rather than as a fellow-teacher?
Some common comments I encounter
‘I’ve never met a man in childcare. Are there many men in childcare?’
The tone of voice is important here – it is usually spoken in a what-on-earth-are-you-doing-here voice.
‘It’s great to have a man working with us today. The children really need a male role model’
What does a male role model do exactly?
‘Julia really likes you. It must be because she’s only got her Mum at home’
Part of learning how to be a teacher has been learning how to look like a trustworthy, interesting, and responsive adult, so that children feel comfortable being around me. Something like this always felt like a back-handed compliment – the children like you, but only because of your Y-chromosome.
‘Julio really likes you. It must be because he is mostly looked after by his Dad during the week’
Apparently children could like me both because they were familiar with, and unfamiliar with, male caregivers. I’m good for everyone and anyone! Again, I hope this was supposed to be a compliment about how well I was doing my job.
‘We really need someone strong. Can you come and help us with this, Yarrow?’
I did not become an early childhood teacher for the heavy lifting. Like laundry jobs, or nappy changing, the manual labour is something we all need to share.
The diversity of teachers
A new conversation in our field might focus on the benefits of being different, rather than the oddities. We all have things that make us different, and talking openly about these can help. If I teach from a wheelchair, how does that affect my teaching skills? If I speak three languages, and have lived much of my life in a different culture, what does that bring to my work as a teacher? We rarely talk about the diversity of teachers. Ongoing changes in state and federal legislation, such as the new Early Years Learning Framework, herald big changes in our working lives. The issues of emotional labour and burn-out have great importance in our field. Now why didn’t colleagues ask me about those things in my relieving work?
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Mills, M., Haase, M. & Charlton, E. (2008) Being the ‘right’ kind of male teacher: the disciplining of John. In Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16:1 pp.71 – 84
Sumsion, J. (2005) Male teachers in early childhood education: issues and case study. In Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 20, 109–123