Schools Gender: men and the primary problem

Clockwise from left: Corey Gilmore, Chris Tricker and Michael Pace. Photos: Meredith O’Shea / John Ansell / AJ Taylor

When we look at busting outdated gender stereotypes, we quite rightly focus on empowering women. But they can be just as restrictive for men working in primary schools.

Male primary school teachers are still something of a rarity, making up less than a quarter of the full-time workforce. Those men who do work in primary schools often find themselves presented with unique – and under-appreciated – challenges, which can start even before they face their first class.

Primary teacher Ben Eilenberg says that he was discouraged from pursuing primary education while still studying at university. “When I went in for an interview as a mature-age student, the dean of education said, ‘It’s so restricted for men, how are you going to teach?”

Ben says the restrictions placed upon male primary school teachers – such as warnings about physical contact with students – can create an oppressive atmosphere, where men often become fearful of being unjustly accused of misconduct. “For the first five or six years, you are very protective,” Ben says. “If there’s no other staff around and a student walks into the room, you will leave to find another teacher or student.”

“You send a naughty child to the male teacher to straighten them out. And that’s really not my teaching style. I’m not very authoritative.”

Fellow teacher Michael Pace says he was aware of this stigma, but becoming a primary teacher – and having to spend time with very young children for the first time in his life – forced him to confront some of the ways in which gender had influenced his own upbringing. While girls are often expected to help out with caregiving for younger siblings or cousins, it’s often foreign territory for boys.

“I think a lot of men are uncomfortable working with young children,” Michael says. “Certainly, going into study straight out of high school, I remember thinking, ‘What will I be able to talk to them about?’”

This contrast between what is expected of a bloke and what is expected of a primary school teacher was all the more stark for Michael, who worked as a forklift driver while studying. Fortunately, his other part-time job, as a Taekwondo instructor, gave him the confidence he needed to work with children – and an awareness of needing to work against certain gender stereotypes.

“I think the main one is an expectation on male teachers to be tough,” he says. “You send a naughty child to the male teacher to straighten them out. And that’s really not my teaching style. I’m not very authoritative. I’m not scary.”

Tom Davis and Ben Eilenberg. Photos: Meredith O’Shea

Fellow teacher Tom Davis agrees there can be an unspoken assumption that male teachers will work with the older, rowdier classes, while their female colleagues are assigned to the younger students.

“There is this perceived idea that even males who are in primary teaching are not always suited for the lower years,” Tom says. “People don’t think a man is able to build that sort of emotional rapport with students. I started teaching Grade 4, but when I said I’d like to go to Grade 2, people said, ‘Oh, you’ll need to be nurturing, do you think you can do it?’ And I said, ‘Of course I can do it!’”

Tom says men make up about 10% of the staff at his current school, a number that roughly reflects the experience of all those here. Given how heavily outnumbered they are, it’s unsurprising that men working in primary schools often find themselves having to take on more than their fair share in situations where both male and female staff are required.

“We’re much more likely to be selected to go on school camps and things like that,” Michael says. “Even if I’m not taking a class that’s doing swimming lessons, I’ll have to attend every year, because you need male and female representation.”

“Nine times out of 10, it’s not that the kid needs a tough male in there to deescalate their behaviour; mostly, they need that caring person.”

Male ES staff at primary schools often experience a similar disparity in workload. Learning technologies coordinator Chris Tricker says he went on all four school camps last year, back to back. And, as with male teachers, he often finds himself called upon to attend excursions when students with behavioural issues will be present.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” Chris says. “There are times where you don’t want to put a female colleague in a vulnerable position. But maybe the situation’s not OK for some men, either. I have a security background and handling situations like that were just my job. But that’s not my job anymore. Nine times out of 10, it’s not that the kid needs a tough male in there to deescalate their behaviour; mostly, they need that caring person.”

Tackling situations where students need to be physically restrained can be particularly fraught for male teachers. Ben says the main reason he initially joined the union was fear of one day having to deal with an unfair accusation of misconduct.

Michael sympathises with this concern. “It makes our job more difficult, because we’re creating relationships – professional relationships – with students and yet, at the same time, we’re warned against becoming too familiar with them. Female teachers give kids hugs and stuff like that – but, as a male teacher, I’m particularly careful of anything that can be misconstrued as inappropriate physical contact with the child.”

Despite these challenges, each of these men loves their work, and brings so many important attributes to the classroom.

“I’ve had comments from parents, saying thank you for being a male role model for my child,” Tom says.

Teacher Corey Gilmore agrees. “It’s obviously very rewarding being that role model. And it makes you reflect back on your own experiences of being at school and the relationships that you built with teachers back then.”

Being a man in a role more often associated with women means helping to bust some persistent gender stereotypes. “Even now, when I say my favourite colour is purple, some of the kids will go, ‘But it can’t be, because you’re a boy, so it has to be blue or red!’” Ben says. “The kids still have that stuff embedded in them.”

He believes that more work needs to be done to make it easier for men to commit to becoming primary teachers – and to support men already in the profession.

Corey agrees. “I think it would help to provide more information and education for potential male teachers going on to tertiary education, so they see primary teaching as a legitimate pathway.”

“Are we really a society that doesn’t perceive men as caring and kind-hearted?”

AEU vice president Marino D’Ortenzio says it is important for all young people to have positive male role models in their lives, particularly in those formative early years. “Although the nature of our support alters depending on the age of the students, our work with students from Prep to Year 6 is inherently nurturing. Positive examples of men involved in this work is important for our learners, as well as for society as a whole.

“To have the proportion of male staff in schools reflect the proportion of males in society is a worthy aspiration, but to do that we need to change society’s perceptions about who should be working with younger children.”

Chris agrees. “There needs to be a societal change. We need campaigns like the ones we see around mental health. Are we really a society that doesn’t perceive men as caring and kind-hearted?”

“It’s a great job,” Ben adds, countering the warnings he received at the start of his career. “Don’t be scared of getting into it. You have to really not listen to anyone else and do what you want to do. If I had listened to other people, I’d be in the building industry right now.”

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