'What does your wife do, Miss?'

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Be prepared for 'gender shock' if you find you arethe only male teacher in theschool, says Kevin Berry

The laundry man used to call every Tuesday morning and he would always put his head round the staffroom door. When the gas man came to read the meter, when the milkman came for his money, it was always the same.

"Morning, girls!" they would cry.

After a year I barely noticed. I was the only man in a primary school with eight women teachers and my gender identity didn't seem to matter to anyone. The children were calling me Mr Berry, no problem with that, but they insisted on tagging "Miss" on to the ends of sentences.

"Can we go out now, Miss?", "Can't find my book, Miss" and even "Miss, where does your wife work?" were typical. I tried, believe me, but they would not drop it.

It was a tough four years at that school. I am normally a fun-loving guy but sometimes that staffroom was a very lonely place. I am hardly a macho male but I did yearn for the company of other men, just to share in a conversation - any conversation. The workplace is where we make most of our friends and teaching does not leave much time to strike up other friendships.

A friendship with a woman colleague is just not possible in a primary school. Tongues will inevitably wag, children will snigger and parents will ask questions. You can forget about advancing the gender debate.

I have never been a male chauvinist porkie but men are slightly different, they look at the world in a different way and their opinions are coloured somewhat by their gender. They enjoy each other's company and don't necessarily need a six-pack of lager and access to a television sport channel to do that.

After a year I seriously began to wonder about my ability to strike up a friendship, or even a conversation with a fellow man.

It got so bad that when one of my women colleagues was fuming about her husband, for whatever reason, and the others would chant their mantra - "Men! Isn't that typical! They're all the same!" - I would nod in agreement.

For goodness' sake don't turn down a job in an all-female school, but be prepared for what I now call gender shock. Here are some survival suggestions, some I have tried and some I wish I had tried: u Get to know the husbands of your teaching colleagues. Once the "nudge-nudge" jokes about having your personal harem have died down you should accept any invitations.

u If you have a hobby or pastime, such as squash, make sure everyone knows. Trim your private life so that you can spend more time on one hobby, rather than three or four. Make the hobby part of your identity and your social contacts will increase.

u Set up a link with a class in another school, having first made sure you are linking with a male teacher. Once that link has been established make another link.

When going on in-service courses ensure that other men are attending. Simply ask the person running the course "Will I be the only man?". Refer to a week-long course you went on which was all female except for you - it's a white lie but what the heck, your sanity is at stake!

u If your course leader is a man, invite him to your school. Encourage men from support agencies to visit your school.

u Set up a support group for male teachers in primary schools. Enlist the "clout" of a sympathetic inspector to get you started. Don't meet at the teachers' centre, or a school, but on neutral ground - the pub, a tea shop, a sports centre.

From a purely selfish point of view being the only man in a school does ensure that you get noticed. You stand out, and that can only be good for promotion prospects.

Children will benefit enormously from having a man on the staff: our primary schools hardly reflect that society is made up of men and women. Men should not have to feel isolated and headteachers, and indeed school governors, ought to be looking at some affirmative action.

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