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Slugs and snails

If we want to recruit more male primary teachers we have to show young boys that it's OK to care, says Thomas Billingham

Boys will be boys. But what is being a boy all about? Primary schools are often bastions of social inclusion and innovation, but too many of us are still hung up on Topsy being different from Tim. Boys who want to play with the "wrong" toys are often thought of as soft or effeminate, and girls who dare to shun pink dresses and fairy wings are invariably labelled "tomboys".

I don't want boys to become more feminine; I want us all to broaden our understanding of what it is to be a woman or a man. As teachers, we have a duty to value all our pupils as they are and as they are yet to be. If we are to enable those in our care to be empathetic members of society then we have to instil in them a sense of their own and others' complex, evolving identities. If we want boys to behave and to achieve their academic potential then we need to stop seeing them as stereotypes, start engaging with them and encourage them to be creative, expressive and open.

These gender preconceptions are not only confined to the classroom; they can also be found in many staffrooms. I've been lucky with the schools I've worked in, but male colleagues tell me it's been assumed there is something wrong with them for wanting to work with young children, that they can't be teachers because they won't be able to support their wives, are lacking in ambition or only in the classroom because it's an easy career path.

The lack of male role models in primary schools isn't necessarily a problem, but men should be encouraged to see teaching as an appropriate, meaningful occupation. If we want to recruit more men - and stop them leaving - then we have to acknowledge that male primary teachers are just as committed, talented and well-rounded as their female counterparts.

Education is about unleashing potential. Anything that seeks to limit, to categorise or to exclude is therefore contrary to the very principles of an education that encourages, enables and empowers. Boys may be boys, but let that be what it might be.

Thomas Billingham is a primary teacher in Milton Keynesl Sixteen-year-old Nicole Dryburgh this term wrote The way I see it, a column for Friday magazine on her life after being diagnosed with cancer. Catch up with her at www.tes.co.ukblogs

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