Men, your nurturing skills are sorely needed
Boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus and Arran Coleman is from the Planet Zarg. "Managing to settle in all right, Arran?" I ask. His mouth is open but no sound comes out. Maybe he's speaking to me telepathically. I assume the answer is a positive one and give him the thumbs up. This is a universal male gesture that roughly translates as "Good on yer, mate".
But if Arran seems alien to me, it's probably nothing compared with how strange I must appear to him. I would like to think that he is staring at me intently through the scratched lenses of his glasses because I bear a striking resemblance to Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but the reality is that he is attending his fourth school in five years and I'm the first male teacher he has come across.
"Where have all the good men gone?" sang Bonnie Tyler in her 1984 hit Holding Out for a Hero. Well, I can safely say that not enough of them are holed up in primary schools. Figures from 2011 indicate that only 12 per cent of primary teachers in England were male and just 8 per cent in Scotland. Numbers were a little better but still dismally low in the US, where 18.3 per cent of middle and elementary school teachers were men. These are worrying statistics in a world in which an ever-increasing number of children are brought up in families such as Arran's, where there is no reliable adult male around.
Male primary teachers are like giant pandas. I don't mean big, cuddly and romantically disinclined - although that may be true in some cases. I mean we are an endangered species: rare, exotic and in demand. We are not in demand for improving learning, however. There is no evidence to suggest that children, or even boys, achieve more by virtue of having been taught by a male teacher. Ironically, we are in demand for our nurturing skills.
Before several female readers choke on their break-time chocolate biscuits, let me explain that by nurturing skills I mean our ability to act as role models. It is important for children to see that men do not have to be violent, drunken, sexist bullies to prove their manliness. Neither - unless they are actively undertaking a complex DIY project - does uttering foul-mouthed obscenities qualify someone as a bloke.
However, it is also vitally important that male primary teachers resist trying to live up to that other popular stereotype. I don't mean the one that suggests we might be a bit dodgy because, after all, why would any man want to work with young children? I mean the one that expects us to sort out badly behaved boys, instil a much-needed sense of discipline into the classroom and manage the school football team on account of our innate understanding of the offside rule.
My advice for male teachers is simple: be the man you are, not the clich others expect. The curriculum is a plain and boring menu of options, designed by robots and written by robots, but it can't be taught by robots. Our job is to spice it up and make it palatable by adding a large dollop of our own personality into the mix. And that personality will always be influenced by our maleness. You don't need to go out of your way to be a male teacher - you already are one.
The "My best teacher" pages in TESS reveal time and again that the most influential teacher in a person's life is often the one who stood out from the rest; the one who appealed in a unique and sometimes quirky way. Maybe it was the sports-mad teacher who spotted a child's athletic potential. Perhaps it was the saxophone-playing teacher who went the extra mile to nurture a musical gift.
It is these things that are important, not some act put on out of pity for a male student's situation. Children see through a fake a mile off. If you are an all-action picture of masculinity, then great. But if you're not, you are no less a male role model. Men, like teachers, come in many guises. Each is as valid as the next, and boys need to know that this is the case.
I would like to think that I inspired Arran in some small way. His mother once said that he enjoyed my drama lessons. But when I asked him to be the Big Bad Wolf he sat under the table with his hands over his head. His mother told me that he usually did this whenever his father broke the terms of his restraining order, found out where they lived and came round to kick the door and shout threats through the letter box.
If, in his adult life, Arran eschews violence, I will be happy to think that I may have played a small part in that decision. Of course, if he turns out to be shallow, frivolous, cynical and emotionally stunted, I will be able to claim all the credit. Especially if he goes on to become a primary teacher.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England