In search of Mr Right

9th May 2003 at 01:00
The profession needs more men, but for the women who welcome them, they become promotion rivals, writes Deborah Jones

The identity of the male primary teacher is in crisis. Ambiguity and confusion characterise the experience of men who work with young children, yet the public is clearly in favour of more men in primary education.

While the Teacher Training Agency aims to increase the number of men in primary schools to one in five by 2005, the question is, "What kind of man should be involved in this profession?"

In a recent study I conducted, female teachers said the wholesale recruitment of men as a group was not desirable. What is needed is the right kind of man. In society's eyes, the men who opt to teach young children inhabit varied and extreme roles. My research found three types perceived by the public:

The Superhero

This is a man who will save children from long-term damage, rescuing them from the feminisation of teaching. Men in the research were aware of the challenge facing them - to be supreme at sport, tantalising in technology and substitutes for absentee fathers. As such they experience adulation at best, and pressure at worst.

The Wimp

Merely by working with young children, this man is viewed as "feminine", "passive" or "weak". In placing himself within a female-dominated workspace and embracing what has been traditionally perceived as "women's work", he is open to abuse. In this study some men were described, by both men and women, as "wet", "wimps" or "wallpaper". They suffered the stigma of not being "real men". They failed to "do their gender right" and as such were punished within and outside the school. Men were aware that crossing the gender boundaries may bring rewards, but at a cost.

The Sexual predator

This kind of man is high risk. From the start, men are subject to a sexual audit and their motives scrutinised. Marriage or fatherhood makes them immediately more acceptable. Throughout their stay, their sexual behaviour is monitored, but only explicitly addressed if there is a problem. Most men studied were subject to warnings or misplaced accusations - knee-jerk reactions to specific incidents which made them feel wounded and insecure.

The threat of such sexual traps can keep men out of teaching.

A paradox is that just as sexual abuse is committed through touch, so are many acts of caring. The men in this study had strong feelings about the importance of being physically demonstrative with children. Most reluctantly adopted a "hands-off approach", establishing their own rules by trial and error, operating with little guidance and even less security.

For them, the biggest single anxiety area was the supervision of children changing for PE, which they refused to discuss with female teachers for fear of being construed as "men who think about children and sex". Women acknowledged they gave guidelines only if asked and held diverse opinions and sets of rules. There is a need for an open climate and well-informed, clear policies. But for most men and women the subject is taboo.

The identity of the male primary teacher is under scrutiny. Men are variously positioned as demons or superheroes, so multiple identities are constructed. In this study, male student teachers were perceived as embodying disparate roles by female teachers, parents and children. The roles ranged from Ofsted inspector, headteacher, janitor, sex-object, flirt and potential paedophile, to sports expert, father figure, sensitive carer and talisman. Men are acutely aware of these and deeply self-conscious as a result. Women are clear there is a right kind of man for work in the primary classroom and their views are fuelled by their experiences.

There is, however, a resentment factor. In some instances men are perceived as denigrating key stage 1 work, simply using it as a stepping-stone for promotion.

Many women, including headteachers, say parents have more respect for male student teachers than them, yet the biggest cause of resentment in the profession is male fast-tracking. Women acknowledge that from the start men are supported and pushed by other men. Male students agree. Many women teachers believe men are promoted regardless of competence. One summed up a common view: "You teach him all you know and the next minute he's your boss."

Even so, most women give positive examples of male teachers, saying "the right kind of man" is:

* enthusiastic about young children

* a listener, and not arrogant

* a team-worker with a sense of humour

* macho, not a "wimp"

The potential male primary school teacher is in competition with many kinds of men, real or imagined. He may want to teach, but decides against it. He may enter but not stay. And it is clear why. He has to prove what kind of man he is within a feminised environment that is often uncomfortable.

But for him, the cost may well be worth the pay-off. The most recent statistics reveal that within primary schools in England 16,100 teachers are men and 120,500 are women. Of these, 6,900 males are headteachers while only 10,600 are women. So whereas nearly half of all men are becoming headteachers, the chances for women are one in 11.

On entering the profession men take identity risks. By welcoming them, women take promotion risks. These issues need to be confronted. The man in the primary school is a prized commodity. But is he just any kind of man, or is he the right kind?

Dr Deborah Jones is a lecturer in primary education at Brunel University

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