Male teachers all over the world and especially in Australia and our Northern Territory are a vanishing species. What has happened? There is in my opinion a need to turn the situation around, and increase the number of male teachers in our schools, particularly our primary schools.
One of the most satisfying periods of my teaching career was at Nhulunbuy Primary School, at Gove, in North-East Arnhem Land, 650 kilometres east of Darwin. During my time of principalship (1983-1986), the school had an enrolment of 750 students, from Transition through to Year Seven. There were a further 90 children being readied for formal learning in our preschool.
The school had a staff of 52 teachers and ancillaries, which included nineteen male teachers (36% of our teaching staff). We men had our own Touch Football team, we made up almost all of one of the local cricket teams, and we were a major contributing force to local rugby league, basketball and other male-focused sport teams.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but a gender balance of that nature is a rarity. The ratio of male-to-female teachers in Australian primary schools these days is 1:27. At 1:9 in high schools, the situation is just a little better, but still, 90% of the staff are women. At Leanyer School where I was Principal for 20 years, we had at best five male members of more than 30 staff. There are some schools where the only male on staff is the janitor!
Where have all the male teachers gone, and why? Male primary teachers are an almost extinct species. Men in teacher training at all levels ar hi e rare. More and more qualified and practising male teachers are leaving for other apparently less stressful occupations.
There are historical reasons for the perceived unattractiveness of primary teaching to men. They centre on the perceptions of salary, status, community regard and an inherent idea that men working with children runs counter to the male psyche. The notion of ‘macho’ and the nurture of children seem somehow to be incongruent. This reasoning is somewhat mythical. Maybe it’s even ‘claptrap’! To hang the diminishment of the male teaching species on such ideas is illogical. But it does nothing to ease a very real situation, that there are now very few male teachers, particularly in primary schools.
Men Under Siege
I have no doubt that male teachers in primary schools are under siege. Along with fellow educators, I study the media’s coverage of our profession. While the media is interpretative, and accuracy sometimes skewed, it still reflects the perceptions generally held by society of social institutions and its managers.
Diet of Male Dysfunctionalism
The community at large is fed a bountiful print, radio and TV diet of stories about male teacher dysfunctionalism. There has been, and continues to be, a plethora of stories alleging interference with, and abuse of, children by male teachers. Sadly, some instances of infringement and violation against children and students are proven in courts. However, a significant percentage of allegations leading to court action are found to be baseless.
For those who have been tried, ‘legal’ acquittal does not negate the associated moral perception and social indignation. Those found ‘not guilty’ by courts and those who never go to court because charges are dropped, are left feeling tainted. In the minds of the wrongfully accused, the damage to their reputations is everlasting.
Children and students are increasingly aware of their rights to care and protection. ‘Stranger danger’, the ‘Kid’s Helpline’ and similar strategies are filling what, historically, has been an information void. It’s important that children do understand their rights and the respect that is due to them. Information from student disclosures, however, needs to be carefully checked before action is taken. If the information offered is accepted without verification, with allegations subsequently found to be untrue, then the accused is violated.
The Need for Human Warmth
Male teachers face a real dilemma. It’s no secret that primary children, particularly younger ones, often seek to be physically close to their teachers. Gripping the hands of teachers, giving teachers cuddles, wanting to sit on teachers’ laps are manifestations of this deep-seated human need. Female teachers seem to be less at risk in this situation than males. Males may want to respond to children with humanity warmth and empathy, but are warned off by a deep societal frown.
By contrast, middle-aged female teachers are often regarded in a ‘grandmotherly’ way. It seems somehow much more socially acceptable for them to respond to the affection of children. A male teacher of the same age has to be much more circumspect, lest his actions be interpreted as those of a ‘dirty old man’.
The challenge is increasingly exacerbated by the phenomena of single parent families. Single mothers often ask that, if possible, their children be placed with a male teacher, for the sake of masculine role modeling. The scenario can become one that creates an acute conflict within the mind of the male teacher.
The Future for Male Teachers Is Not Rosy
There is an increasing focus on male teacher vulnerability but tackling the issue has been, at best, oblique. Deflecting the issue is no way of handling its challenge. At some stage – hopefully sooner rather than later – a considered response to the issue by senior managers will be necessary. Ignoring the situation won’t make it go away. In an age where litigation is increasingly common, the threat to male teacher integrity is likely to become more pronounced.
There are many factors that impinge on the issue of school staffing. Conversations with teachers reveal that the tension of being a vulnerable group weighs heavily on the minds of remaining male educators. I once had an excellent male teacher come to me saying he was resigning because of the weight of this perception. An outstanding teacher was forever lost to the profession.
The problem of the male teacher shortage is one that will rapidly worsen in the near future, given the ageing teaching profession and the imminent retirement of large number of existing male teachers. Unless something is done, primary schools will soon be staffed almost entirely by women.
Female teachers are valued educators and do a great job. However, there is a need for gender balance within schools for the sake of organisational equilibrium. The worry is that we are sadly out of balance.