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When 'Miss' is a mister

Male teachers tell Maureen McTaggart how they have overcome prejudices about the men who choose a career in primary schools

Philip Jones stands out among his colleagues at Newby First School. As the only male teacher at the Bradford school, with eight years as head of the nursery department, he has had to get used to some teasing. But after so long as a minority, his colleagues have generally forgotten he is a man and he often gets called "Miss" or "mum" by his pupils.

Recent figures show that only 14 per cent of all primary trainees are men and they are still an endangered species in nursery and infant schools. Afraid of being labelled "perverts", male students are reluctant to work with young children.

"You make your reputation with the people you work with," says Mr Jones. "In my experience any prejudice or stereotype can be challenged and people can soon come to see you as a member of the team. I feel that, on a social level, there needs to many more men working in early years."

In the beginning his presence seemed strange to parents and children, and he once overheard a conversation between two of his pupils during which one referred to him as the teacher. "That's not a teacher, that's a man," retorted the other.

Mr Jones says its not a job he would recommend to anyone who is image conscious or who wants status and money. He says: "There is not much access to things like extra allowances and you often end up covered in paint from head to foot. But I would strongly resist the idea that early years are all about social skills. It's probably true that pastoral work looms large when you are working with younger kids but the job is a complete challenge and demanding intellectually, emotionally and physically."

Men who are at all impatient, aloof or want to preserve dignity need not apply. Neither should those who feel it's necessary to be macho.

"You have to be tough enough to be relaxed and firm enough when needed," says Mr Jones.

"What are you doing that for, that's a woman's job," exclaimed Robert Meakin's mother when she first learned of his choice of career. And when the 29-year-old tells people he is a teacher they always ask which subject he takes, assuming he works in a secondary school.

The first male teacher at his primary school and straight out of training college, Mr Meakin immediately had PE added to his workload teaching 10 and 11-year-olds. He is now in charge of top infants and has managed to shrug off his PE role with the arrival of another male teacher.

"It is not a normal nine to five job," says Mr Meakin. "Every day is different. It is a constantly changing environment but although there are constraints with the curriculum, unlike in secondary teaching you can really go to town on whatever the children show a special interest in."

Male teachers can challenge stereotypes and provide positive role models, especially for children who do not have a male parent at home or for those vulnerable to the growth of a "laddish" culture that spurns learning. But the growing focus on child abuse affects the decisions of men who might be interested in this work.

"A male teacher has to be wary, given the current climate. A female teacher would naturally go and comfort a hurt child but as a male you tend to take a step back and think, 'could this be misconstrued?'" says Mr Meakin.

"But it is important for children to see you as a caring male," he adds. "If I were regarded as hard this could be a disadvantage for them and what kind of role model would that make me?" Of the 10 teachers at St Nicolas Junior school, East Sussex, five are men. Peter Cox, the headteacher, likes to keep a balance with a male and female teacher in every year group. Teacher Stephen MacDonald says the even numbers make for a better atmosphere.

"Most parents are keen on the idea of their children having a male teacher and tell me that they are looking forward to it, as they had never had one before," says Mr MacDonald. He says it is also an advantage to have a loud voice - for discipline purposes. But he is very aware of keeping a physical distance, which is sometimes difficult because, he says, as a father his instinct would be to hug a child who was hurt.

"I make sure I am never on my own in class with a child because there is always the chance of being open to accusation. In any case the children would prefer to hug the female teachers."

Apart from the rewards of watching young people grow, Robert Meakin says:

"Being the only male in school means you always get asked to go on residential trips to balance out the numbers. A sleepover at the Science Museum is a particular favourite of mine."

Thirty years ago, when ex-dean of Nottingham University Professor Philip Gammage started out teaching seven-year-olds, he encountered a similar reactions from people. He was often asked why he wouldn't get a decent career and his father wanted to know if he would be promoted to teaching older children.

Now the Foundation Chair of Early Childhood Education, he says: "Primary teaching was associated with mothering and bringing up children and seen as a quick route for promotion for male teachers, while secondary teaching was more a role for the craftsman. Now I see male primary teachers enjoying being carers and some of the best teachers are those teaching infant children."

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