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Does Gender Matter?

Jerry DeQuetteville
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Would Boys do Better in School if More of Their Teachers Were Men?

When I was growing up there was no women’s work or men’s work in our household, there was just work. We all pitched in and did what needed to be done. My grandmother was a teacher, my mother was a teacher, and many of her friends were teachers, both male and female. I came  into contact with many teachers, both male and female, who had a profound impact upon me. Perhaps  it was these influences that, when I was mulling over career options, made me finally settle on  teaching. I never once thought that it was women’s work. Clearly not all men have this same experience.

For many years there has been concern about the fact that the number of male teachers has been declining. At the elementary level, the number of men seems to have stabilized over the past few years, while at the secondary level it continues to drop.

The media portray the issue with a sense of hysteria. This summer a Globe and Mail columnist suggested that the lack of male teachers was the reason boys are falling behind girls in high-stakes standardized testing.

To examine the issue and to try and correct some of the misconceptions that exist, ETFO sponsored a symposium that asked the question: Is the Male Teacher Becoming Extinct? The symposium, held in May, provided an opportunity for a wide range of participants to gather information and discuss the issue.

In her introduction, ETFO President Emily Noble reminded participants that “the media seems to tie the fewer number of male teachers to some perceived failure of boys in our schools. The assumptions that women are somehow unable to teach boys and that all boys learn the same way are simplistic and insulting to both genders.”

Justin Trudeau, who was briefly a teacher, delivered the keynote address. He pointed out that the reduced numbers of male teachers in our schools is a symptom that society no longer values service-related professions in general. Those who make a product are valued, those who work with people not so much. He believes teachers have a responsibility to help students to become leaders who care about others and about the environment in which we live. He emphasized the importance of teachers as role models and implored the audience to work with students in an effort to reintroduce to our society the respect for service to others and to one’s country.

Dr. Rebecca Coulter, professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario, and  Christopher Greig, a UWO graduate student, provided an historical perspective. They pointed out that the  debate, while not new, is highly charged and historically has lead to some inappropriate comments and proposed “solutions.”

Coulter and Greig provided numerous examples of  policymakers throughout Canadian history downplaying  the work of teachers, particularly woman teachers, as they waded into the debate about male teachers. There  has always been a perception that teaching is less than ‘manly,’ in the macho definition of the word. Apart from  a  slight fluctuation during the Depression, women dominated teaching because they could be paid less, and men often stayed in the profession only to become administrators.

During the Depression, when men lost their higher-status jobs many became teachers and female teachers were let go: the rationale was that women had fathers and brothers to support them, whereas men needed to support their wives and children. As far back as 1943, an article in the EducationalCourier indicated that women appreciated all young and single professional men except teachers.

University of Alberta researcher Dr. Janice Wallace questioned the assumptions that society has about male educators. Her research revealed that men who are contemplating a career in education are often torn: our society has traditional ideals of masculinity; unchallenged homophobia makes people look askance at men who work with young children; working with young children is thought to be women’s work. It is no wonder then that fewer than 25 per cent of  elementary teachers are male and many men teach the higher grades. Interestingly, Wallace also pointed out that a disproportionate number of male candidates at the faculties of  education are “second-career” men who are changing professions later in life.

Male  elementary  teachers  often  compensate for society’s conflicting expectations by assuming a super-masculine personality, or by simply leaving the profession to find jobs in more traditional fields, Wallace said. This is a message that other speakers reinforced.

Wallace surveyed beginning teachers and asked why they chose the profession. Their responses showed that  parents and high school teachers were  largely  positive  influences,  while  friends and the media had a negative impact. The male respondents  indicated  that  increased  pay,  a re-evaluation of  the  teacher stereotype, and  a work environment that was more reflective of male characteristics – more action oriented, less emphasis on discussion and consensus building – might encourage more men to see teaching as a viable career choice.

Dr. Gary Jones of the Calgary Board of Education reiterated this idea when he spoke of a need to create a safe space for all teachers. His work with male teachers in Calgary revealed that many didn’t feel they fit in: their female colleagues had unique bonds and the men didn’t feel as if they belonged. In order to counteract this phenomenon, Jones has formed a number of book clubs and professional learning communities for men, these have a professional dimension but also an important social aspect.

This caused me to reflect on my own career. I recalled meeting with colleagues to organize class lists for the upcoming school year. Over and over I heard: “We have to put ‘X’ in Jerry’s class because he is a handful.” Or “X needs a male influence.” Such comments made me nervous because I didn’t identify my role as a teacher with my gender and I felt my teaching itself was trivialized. It was as if my teaching skills and my program had little to do  with the class-building decisions; my gender was the deciding factor. Also, I didn’t know what my “male influence” was! Was I supposed to be tougher on students than others? More and more research indicates that men find teaching unwelcoming because of this perception of masculinity. Men, like women, don’t always want to be forced into a gender role that is constructed by others.

Many of the speakers challenged the audience to look at why the issue is raised. Why does it continue to be debated when it has existed for more than 100 years? Dr. Coulter showed that often the debate is linked to high-stakes standardized tests in which, commonly and historically, boys perform less well than girls. This discrepancy pressures politicians to come up with quick fixes.

According to Dr. Wallace, studies show that having more male teachers will not greatly affect boys’ test scores. However, there is ample research to indicate that low socio-economic status, family history, family supports, and peer group influences have an impact on test results. Governments that want better student performance should focus not on teacher gender but on quality pedagogy, ensuring that teachers are well trained and have the tools they need to do their jobs.

The debate is not unique to Canada. Dr. Wayne Martino and Dr. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli cited numerous research studies from the UK and Australia that reviewed the impact male teachers have on boys. Australia’s ultra-conservative federal government reacted in a knee-jerk way: it went so far as to change the country’s constitution so that it could offer scholarships just for men. This extreme measure has had a negligible  impact. Other policies designed to give preference to men applying for teaching jobs have also been failures. There are no simple answers.

During the afternoon, participants were led through facilitated discussions of four key issues: Is this a problem? Why is it a problem? What can be done to address the issue? Who should undertake the solutions?

The discussions were rich and passionate. Recently the ETFO Executive called for an executive/staff task force to review the data collected by the facilitators and to report back to the November executive meeting.

Teachers understand that we are important influences in children’s lives and that we try to expose our students to positive role models. Unfortunately our impact can’t always be measured. Often it isn’t planned. Yet all teachers have had the experience of a former student sharing with them the effect that they had. It is powerful, it is real, and it is one of the reasons why ETFO believes in a diverse teaching population.

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