Anxious times for male teachers in primary

15th February 2013 at 00:00
Study reveals men's role is plagued by insecurities and contradictory perceptions

Male primary teachers are always in demand - but could that be for the wrong reasons? A research project has cast doubt on common assumptions about this rare breed: that their mere presence can improve behaviour; that boys desperately need them; and that they are somehow lacking if they do not race up the career ladder.

The University of Strathclyde study also reveals some of the anxieties that bubble beneath the surface for men in primaries; some well recognised, others more surprising. They range from nervousness about public perceptions that male child abusers gravitate to schools, to discomfiture at being "mothered" by female colleagues.

Masculinities in Primary Teaching in Scotland: Investigating Experiences of Male Primary Teachers is led by Geri Smyth, who has been intrigued by this topic since the mid-1990s when she became concerned about the number of male student primary teachers who did not complete their training.

She finds a paradox: on one hand, a "moral panic" engendered by a media fixation with stories of paedophiles working in schools, no matter how rare they might be; on the other, the view of the male teacher as a pedagogical superman - "as long as we had more men, all the problems of education would be solved".

As Professor Smyth puts it: "Teaching in the primary classroom for males is fraught with contradictions."

The research, by Professor Smyth and Dr Anna Piela, is drawn from a survey of 456 teachers - primary, secondary, male and female - and focus groups and interviews with 20 people ranging from students to heads.

The findings suggest that men, who make up 8 per cent of the primary teacher workforce, are often viewed in terms of their inherent "male" qualities rather than personal attributes, their ability to be a "role model" rather than their caring qualities and ability to build relationships.

Younger men were frustrated at the common assumption they were naturally better-equipped to take charge of a particularly badly behaved class, or that they could organise a school event unaided.

And they are expected to be on a trajectory towards senior management from the start - if they are still class teachers well into their career, the view is, as Professor Smyth puts it, that "there must be something wrong with you".

An initial paper, to be followed by a full report this summer, suggests that gender stereotypes - "men as breadwinners, managers, disciplinarians and not carers" - are one reason why men seek to be promoted quickly. The stereotyping may even "attract men without appropriate skills or aptitude to teaching", it says.

The research, which its authors acknowledge is based on "feminist research methodologies and constructivist epistemology", reveals that traditional beliefs about the qualities of men and women are still commonly held.

Some 25 per cent of respondents said patience was usually considered to be a feminine quality, while 2 per cent said it was masculine (others deemed it gender-neutral).

In stark contrast, 33 per cent said firmness was masculine and 2 per cent feminine; 31 per cent thought sense of humour was masculine, compared with 2 per cent who said feminine.

Focus groups and interviews told a different story, with male teachers talking about their own qualities of patience and kindness. All male respondents were "troubled" by the idea that they would be promoted quickly because of their gender, and all rejected the notion that their gender made them more able to teach boys - a feeling borne out by wider research.

As the paper says: "No studies have indicated improved achievement of pupils (regardless of stage, age, ethnicity or social class) where their gender was matched with that of their teachers."

In fact, the deliberate matching of pupils and teachers of the same gender only "obscures" social and racial or ethnic inequalities that affect boys and girls.

The research finds that male teachers object to what, on the surface, may seem like benign treatment by colleagues: "mothering", or - in Professor Smyth's words - the implication that men are "little boys who need to be looked after".

What may seem like affectionate, gender-based jokes can, the report states, "create confusion in younger male teachers regarding their position in the workplace".

In short, the report portrays a gender divide in primary teaching: explicitly and implicitly, men and women are often expected to perform different roles and bring different qualities to the job. This often jars with how male teachers view themselves as teachers - it "undermines their professionalism", says Professor Smyth.

TESS asked a cross-section of men at various stages of their careers in education whether they agreed with the findings - its observations resonated and caused irritation in almost equal measure.

Leslie Manson, Orkney's education director and former president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, spent the early part of his career as a primary teacher and worked in a nursery in a poor part of Aberdeen.

It is true that male primary teachers often aim for senior roles at an early stage, says Mr Manson - he applied for a headship while a probationer - but it would not be hard to find counter-examples to the negative experiences reflected in the paper.

While "maybe there is a degree of stereotyping", it should be recognised that male teachers can bring something different to primary schools, he adds.

Male role models are useful for children - boys and girls - who might not otherwise have one, Mr Manson believes. That need not mean anything as profound as a stand-in father figure, but simply the experience of being around a "capable male figure that they maybe don't experience at home".

Sometimes, he adds, it is a simple fact that men bring something different - for example, they are more likely to have the skills and experience to coach football.

When Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' union AHDS, discussed the paper with colleagues, they did not agree with some of its observations.

"They felt that they were not pushed or expected to move towards management, nor looked down upon if they didn't pursue management roles," he says.

They were clear, too, that some boys did respond differently - in a positive way - to them as male teachers.

The 323-pupil King's Oak Primary, in Greenock, has three male teachers.

Teachers Murray Foulds and Craig Thomson say they have, at various times, encountered certain assumptions: that they must be aiming for management; that their pupils are scared to misbehave - rather than the teachers being credited for their skills and setting high expectations.

They feel that having a number of male staff in a school creates a healthier social climate, in the same way that women's presence in a traditionally male-dominated workplace would.

Depute head Graeme Marshall believes it is more important to increase the number of excellent teachers than address the gender imbalance in primaries.

"Although I have occasionally noticed that pupils do respond differently to male and female members of staff - especially in the early stages of forming relationships - I believe the capacity of staff to use restorative and nurturing principles is more influential in achieving productive teacher-pupil relationships than their own gender," he says.

All three teachers at the Inverclyde school stress that, in their experience, gender is rarely an issue which causes any stress.

James Wylie, headteacher at Kirn Primary in Argyll and Bute, would like to see more research into the implications for teaching of cognitive differences between male and female brains: it is important to consider that men may respond differently to a situation, that men may be wired in a way more attuned to boys' needs.

"The reason that a male is good isn't necessarily because they are providing a role model, but a different way of thinking," says Mr Wylie, who became a headteacher at 27.

But there are important exceptions: cognitive research, for example, appeared to suggest that gay men's brains may share traits with women's. He sees some truth in familiar assertions about male and female traits, such as women's predisposition to caring, but believes exceptions are not hard to find - some female colleagues of his have been particularly skilled at managing pupil behaviour.

Men, adds Mr Wylie, tend to leave a greater initial impression on primary pupils, largely because of their physical size and rarity, and children will often talk up their impact - but in the long term, he does not believe gender alone will bring about significant differences in attainment and achievement.

Paul Campbell, a North Lanarkshire probationer with a P3 class, took part in the Strathclyde research and has recent experience of some of the issues raised.

"When I was in nursery school on placement, parents certainly commented frequently that they were overjoyed with the influence I had on their children and how in some cases their attitude to coming (to nursery) had changed. But I found it sometimes frustrating when this was purely attributed to my gender, where it could have been to do with my skills as a teacher," says Mr Campbell, whose honours-year dissertation was on gender discrimination.

On his first placement, he was asked to take a class of boys who needed help with their behaviour. He recalls: "I was only 16, not quite sure what they were expecting me to achieve, or whether or not it was just the fact I was male they perceived would have a positive influence."

He feels that he frequently has to justify his decision to become a primary teacher in a way that women would not. The researchers call on male teachers to challenge gender-based assumptions, and Mr Campbell agrees that this is important.

He does not believe gender in itself makes any difference to teaching and learning - but he does think that male primary teachers can counteract deep-rooted stereotypes before they become embedded at an early age.

Gerard Curley was first interviewed by TESS in 2005 as an ambitious 23- year-old newly qualified teacher, who aimed to become a headteacher within 10 years. He is now depute head at St Andrew's Primary in Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire.

He objects to the suggestion that, as a male primary teacher, he is driven by the prospect of quick progression, a larger salary and that he may not have the skills or aptitude for teaching.

"I made the choice to enter into management because I feel strongly that I wanted to impact positively on all learners across a school, not just the 33 that I was privileged to call my class," he says.

"Showing our young people that male teachers have the ability and capacity to be just as nurturing as our female colleges is vital. It reinforces the message that caring for each other is important and should not be gender- dependent," he adds.

Mr Curley believes more male role models would benefit primary children, but does not think men are better than women in handling difficult behaviour. And he describes it as "wholly inaccurate" to suggest that men avoid teaching younger children because they fear media coverage of child abuse may cast doubt on their motives.

The researchers themselves are wary of fixating on men's experiences in primaries. Professor Smyth wants to change perceptions in order to encourage more men into primary teaching - but says that this should coincide with attempts to redress the under-representation of women in other areas of education: senior positions in schools, local authorities and government.

The guiding principle should be "creating a teaching workforce representative of the population".

In numbers

  • Teacher numbers by sector and gender, on 1 February 2013
  • Female primary teachers: 32,861 (92%)
  • Male primary teachers: 2,698 (8%)
  • Female primary headteachers: 1,741 (86%)
  • Male primary headteachers: 288 (14%)
  • Female secondary teachers: 23,758 (64%)
  • Male secondary teachers: 13,490 (36%)
  • Female secondary headteachers: 108 (30%)
  • Male secondary headteachers 252 (70%)
    • Source: General Teaching Council for Scotland

      Echoes from 2005

      The work of Professor Geri Smyth and Dr Anna Piela frequently echoes a major piece of research published in 2005, The Gender Balance of the Teaching Workforce in Scotland: What's the Problem?

      It said the proportion of men in Scotland's teaching workforce had fallen from about a third in 1994 to about a quarter in 2004 (February 2013 GTCS figures put it at about 22 per cent), but that decline was largely attributed to changes in secondaries.

      Teaching was increasingly seen as a woman's job demanding "soft" qualities, found University of Edinburgh researchers. Men wanting to work with young children felt that a growing emphasis on child protection meant they might be viewed with suspicion.

      Gender stereotyping appeared to be a factor in the growing feminisation of the teaching workforce. Teaching had yet to re-establish itself as a high- status profession and men still saw themselves as the family breadwinner, with the associated need for a high salary; men dominated promoted posts.

      The study said: "Men entering primary education training had to be particularly determined, since questions might be asked about their sexuality, they might be discouraged by family and friends, and the almost exclusively female training programme and staffroom might be off- putting."

      What participants said

      Some comments from the Masculinities in Primary Teaching in Scotland research

      Roy, primary teacher

      "When you think about the number of male doctors, the number of male teachers, the number of male clergy, they are in caring roles and have caring functions."

      Fingal, third-year BEd student

      "I think it is almost expected that you will be formed into a leadership role at some point because that's the only way for males to go. Sometimes if there was an older male class teacher who hadn't gone into management, some females think: `What has he done wrong? What's the problem? And I think they see that as.(Another participant): `A weakness'."

      Margaret, headteacher

      "I think boys in schools sometimes respond better to a male because it's maybe a `get on with it' kind of thing and much less flowery language and explanations."

      Darren, primary teacher

      "I don't want my kids to think that because I am a man teacher, at PE we are going to do football. We did dance last term. Some of the boys found it really strange that we were dancing in class and I was dancing."

      Jason, second-year BEd student

      "I would be much more comfortable teaching an older class than an infant class because parents.might (ask) `Well, why?'"

      Sean, primary teacher in second year of career

      "Women, it seems to be OK, when children are getting changed for gym in a primary classroom, in Primary 1, 2 or 3, the children will get changed in class in front of each other and the class teacher. When it's a male teacher, it seems to be that's less OK and the girls should not be getting changed in front of a man and that's something that crops up quite a lot in primary schools."

      Peter, fourth-year BEd student

      "A class teacher on my placement was talking about leadership and management and I said `I'm quite happy to stay in the classroom', and her comment was: `No, after a couple of years you'll get bored of the class and need more of a challenge.'"

      Rory, primary teacher

      "There's a lot of sympathy for young men. There's a lot of extra help.I think it's harder for them because they are moving into feminine quarters. But I think that goes quickly if they don't live up to the mark."

      Pseudonyms have been used.

      Photo credit: Getty

      Original headline: Revealed: tales of the anxious males on primary's front line

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