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Critically Endangered: Male Pre-school Teachers

Looking at your average kindergarten or childcare centre today it is almost hard to believe that some of the key drivers of early childhood education were male – and staunch Germans at that. It was people like Kindergarten founder Froebel or anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner who took early childhood away from a mere ‘looking after’ approach to it being the first step in education, and a very significant one. Movements like the ones founded by these men introduced the now generally accepted idea that a child is not merely an immature adult that has to learn about society’s rules and mores, but has development needs specific to their age.

Beyond being role models, men and women provide specific stimulation for young children that is beneficial for their development. However, in childcare centres children will in all likelihood, mainly get the female variety.

New Zealand’s track record in attracting men to the profession is particularly appalling. Not only have the numbers of male Early Childhood teachers always been small, they have actually been declining further in the last 15 years. While the childcare sector has ballooned in terms of the number of staff employed, the number of men teaching our smallest youngsters has gone down both relatively and absolutely. Amongst nearly 14,000 women Early Childhood teachers in state-sponsored centres there are only 130 males currently employed in this profession – less than 1% and down from 2.5% in 1992. Compare that to frontrunner Norway where the male proportion of early childhood teachers is 20%, or even ‘macho’ Australia at 4%. The Early Childhood Council, which is the largest national body for licensed early childhood centres, went so far as to say that the current lack of male teachers is a ‘national disgrace’.

Should this concern us?

Absolutely, says Wellington researcher Sarah Farquhar, who has been pushing that particular barrel for nigh on 15 years now. Her perhaps strongest argument: “The Early Childhood Education sector is not reflective of the situation in the community.” Translation: fathers have been taking up hands-on child care with their own offspring in droves, yet the situation that children encounter in childcare facilities is one where men are almost completely absent. “Society has moved on”, she says. “Men are more actively engaged in caring for their children; yet the early childhood workforce seems stuck in the 1970s family model.”

Childcare – or Early Childhood Education Centres – is a growth sector, because parents of pre-schoolers spend more and more hours in paid work. Because of the sector’s female-dominated work force, “children’s time with adult males is thus reduced”, says Sarah.

The decline in the number of male Early Childhood teachers also goes against a trend in other female-dominated professions such as nursing, where increasing numbers of men are seen.

Sarah Farquhar felt strongly enough about the issue to convene a ‘Summit’ on ‘Men in Early Child Care and Teaching’ in Christchurch in March this year, attended by about 70 people with an interest in the area, including many male Early Childhood Educators. The summit’s aim was to put this issue on the map and create a network, perhaps a movement, that can push the issue into the public and political limelight. Three issues were at the fore of the discussions:
Fear of sexual abuse allegations. More than a decade on from the Christchurch Civic Creche case, where three female and one male childcare workers were accused of sexually abusing children (and the male, Peter Ellis, was eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment) many at the summit felt that men are vulnerable to false accusations of sexual abuse. It’s the ‘elephant in the room that no-one wants to see’ said Lynley Hood, author of ‘A City Possessed’, who thinks that none of the issues raised by the Ellis case have been addressed.

Lack of role models in the profession. Men working as Early Childhood Educators are so rare that men may be forgiven for thinking that this profession is simply not open for them. There are virtually no other men who can tell them what the job is like, what the rewards (and pitfalls) really are. Male Early Childhood Teachers also tend to attract more father involvement in the centre, which creates a better balance of male and female role models overall.

Some small efforts are made to at least include more images of men when advertising the career, for example on the TeachNZ web site which promotes teaching jobs.

Men who do work in the profession are quite isolated as it is highly unlikely that there will be another male working at the same centre. Networking amongst those working as Early Childhood Teachers was seen as a key to any progress.

Unsupportive political environment. Sarah Farquhar pointed out that compared to efforts to promote women into traditionally male-dominated jobs the government is more than a little cagey about opening women’s professions to men. There is a tendency to blame the men themselves for not wanting to work in low-status, low-pay professions. However, many male-dominated jobs pay significantly worse and have lower status (supermarket trolley-pusher is one), and never mind job satisfaction.

Wellington researcher Paul Callister summed up the approach of the Wellington academic and political environment like this: ”Whenever women are at a disadvantage it is a problem of society. Whenever men are at a disadvantage it is the problem of the individual men.”

In his presentation, Paul showed how government policies of promoting women into men’s jobs had the desired effect: When it comes to university or other tertiary degrees, women now outnumber men in previously male-dominated areas such as dentistry as well as maintaining or increasing their advantages in their own traditional strongholds.

Says Callister: “it’s obvious that this kind of approach works.” So why not take it to promote men into a profession that is so crucial for all of us?

When in opposition the two main political parties have always supported increasing the number of male early childhood teachers. Leading up to the 1999 general election Labour’s Steve Maharey not only said there need to be more men in the profession but also slammed the then National-led government for policies that do not protect people against false abuse allegations. When in government, however, Labour did nothing about those policies, or anything to encourage men into Early Childhood teaching.

National education minister Nick Smith announced in 1999 a government initiative to get more men into primary teaching. This was to include television ad campaigns, but none were actually forthcoming. Now in opposition, National is criticising Labour for its inaction – and for policies that scare men away.

It is hard to see how the situation could improve without the political will. As summit participants pointed out, individual childcare centres may want to employ men, only there aren’t any around with the right qualifications. Education providers may want to include men as much as women, but if there aren’t any applicants there is not much they can do.

One summit participant pointed out that in the late 1980s and early 1990s there used to be a scheme where male pre-school teachers would speak to high school students about the job as part of making students aware of career choices. This was dumped during the Peter Ellis case.

Without encouragement male pre-school teachers may become completely extinct. Do we, in this age of active fathers, really want to send the message to our youngest children that they are women’s work and women’s work only?

Next: Father Dave Dobbyn

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